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Chapter 1  

Understanding the Changing Role of Supervision

“Predicting the future is easy. It’s trying to figure out what’s going on now that’s hard.”

 –  Fritz R. S. Dressler


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Each year, the authors coach, train, and mentor hundreds of leaders involved with organizations as large and diverse as the Department of Defense and as small as entrepreneurial start‐up companies. Ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, these leaders provide insight into the methods used by a wide range of supervisors and managers.

Some supervisors have been truly inspirational; others admitted the need for improvement; and still others were in a state of denial, believing any and all problems were caused by someone else—namely, “the employees.” A bewildered manager recently said in one of our seminars, “Did the whole world change and I didn’t get it?” Simply put, yes, the whole world did change, and seasoned managers, those with 20 to 30 years of experience, unanimously agree on one issue: the role of the 21st‐century manager and the skills required to get the job done today are significantly different from the role of the supervisor/manager as recently as 20 years ago.  Typically, people are promoted into supervisory roles based on their technical expertise. Some newly appointed supervisors make a smooth transition into leadership. Others stumble and experience multiple challenges with managing people. In addition to technical expertise, to be successful in a leadership role today, the manager or supervisor needs a whole new skill set based on being “people smart.”  Why do leaders need to be “people smart”? No doubt you earned your leadership role by honing your technical expertise, working harder than most, and being loyal and committed to management and the success of your organization. Your organization recognized your talent and promoted you, giving you a supervisory title. However, when you were promoted, they forgot to tell you that supervisory title is not a guarantee for your success as a leader. With your title comes a degree of authority, but no assurance that your employees will get the job done. Effective leadership is all about a good working relationship between the employees and the boss. Your title gives you authority, but it’s the working relationship you’ve got with your employees that gives you the power. The test of leadership is whether you have followers—people who are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure you and your team’s success.

In past decades, just having a supervisory title was enough to ensure that you had your employees’ attention and respect, and the job would get done. Those days are over. Today, due to a wide range of environmental and economic changes, the role of supervisor has changed substantially, requiring a whole new leadership skill set. This chapter reviews some of the reasons that contribute to this changing role.


Workforce Composition Changes

The composition of the American workforce continues to change. Several major trends have contributed to this new workforce.


There are more women in the workforce. In the past 50 years, the most significant change in our workforce has been the number of women on the job. In 1960, less than 40 percent of women in the United States worked outside the home. Today, laws protecting women’s rights in the workplace, coupled with genuine financial necessity, have allowed women to gain an increasing foothold in the business world. According to the Population Bulletin’s 2008 edition of U.S. labor trends,[1] nearly 60 percent of all American women hold a job. The majority of new workforce entrants will be women and minorities. At the time this book was published, women made up slightly more than half of the composition of the American workforce.


The average age of the workforce is increasing. Between 2010 and 2030, workers who are 55 and older are projected to make up 23 percent of the workforce, compared to only 13 percent in 2000. In 2008, the first of the Baby Boomers were eligible for retirement. Given their general good health and the recession of 2008– 2010, less than expected numbers of Boomers left the workforce. Many Boomers have had to significantly alter their retirement plans and will continue working until the economy improves. Never before has such a large segment of our workforce been so near to retirement age, potentially posing a significant talent drain when they begin to retire in mass once the economy ramps up.


The number of minorities in the workplace will continue to increase. By the year 2050, minority groups in the United States, especially Asians and Hispanics, will be less of a minority in the workforce than ever before. With the passage of each decade, immigration will continue to change the size and composition of the population and workforce. The rate of growth of the Hispanic population is expected to be greater than that of all other racial and ethnic groups. Hispanics constituted 12.9 percent of the civilian population in 2005 and are projected to increase their share to 23.2 percent by 2050. At that time, they will make up approximately 24 percent of the entire American workforce. (These statistics were obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ long‐term labor report[2] compiled in 2006.)


Entry­level workers are not prepared. A study of employers conducted by the Corporate Voices for Working Families in 2009[3] indicated that employees hired into entry‐level jobs are not prepared to join the workforce. The study identified the three most important skills required for success in the 21st century as communication, professionalism, and problem solving. When asked how they would rate the preparation of recent students or graduates for entry level jobs, 37 percent of the employers said American workers are not very prepared; 34 percent said they were somewhat prepared; and 14 percent said they were very prepared.

These workforce trends make it even more difficult to be a successful supervisor. Aside from getting the job done, other issues arise: a worker who is older than the supervisor, a worker who does not understand English or does not read well, a worker who has more formal education than the manager, and coworkers who encounter cultural conflicts.


Changing Workforce Values

In addition to the composition of the American workforce changing significantly, the values of the workforce have undergone radical changes. One of the most striking ways to study how the role of the supervisor has changed over the past 50 years is to look at the values of the workers they supervise. A list of typical work values in the 1950s and 1960s is illustrated below, as well as some of the critical values of today’s workforce. What a contrast!

Values of the Workforce: Past and Present

Values of the 1950s and 1960s Workforce Values of Today’s Workforce
FamilyGood craftsmanshipHappy to have a jobJob stabilityLoyalty to boss

Loyalty to company


Savings account

Technical ability

BenefitsConcern for healthEducationFlexible schedule/Need for time offWork/life balance

High concern for self

Desire meaningful work

Input appreciated

Interesting work

Open communication

Opportunity to advance

Personal growth



Even accounting for the 2008–2010 recession and its impact on unemployment, it is still clear that today’s worker is no longer happy to have just any job. Today’s workers want work to be meaningful and fun, and want to be recognized for their contributions. Occasionally, we hear frustrated managers say, “Workers today have no work ethic!” Typically, the manager, a Baby Boomer who worked long, hard hours to get where he or she is today, has difficulty understanding Gen X’s and the Millennials’ priorities, which include the need to be recognized, workplace flexibility, opportunity to move up, equality among team members, and an employer who recognizes the employee’s need to have a balanced life.

This is the first time in American history that we have had four very different generations working side‐by‐side in the workplace. Although proportionately fewer in number, the Veterans, or “Silents” as they are sometimes called, born 1922–1945, make up the oldest component of our workforce. Following them are the Baby Boomers, born 1946–1964. Next to join the workforce was Generation X, born 1965–1976. Just arriving on the scene are Gen Y, or the Millennials, born 1977–1998.  Research abounds showing that people communicate with one another based on their generational backgrounds. Each generation joining the workforce brings with it distinct behaviors, attitudes, values, habits and different triggers that motivate them. For example, the topic of work/life balance is widely discussed these days. For the Veteran, it is a no brainer discussion. The job has always come first. For the  Boomer who lives to work, there is little empathy for workers demanding a life outside of work. For Gen X, the job serves a purpose: to ensure quality in one’s life. Gen Xers work to live, not live to work. And, while the trends for the Millennials are still to be determined, this generation appears to also place a high value on achieving a work/life balance.

While there may be a tendency on the part of some Boomer or Veteran managers to discount Gen X’s and the Millennials’ values as being “soft,” self‐serving, or not loyal to the employer, taking a quick look at the facts will help us understand why today’s workers are bringing with them a very different set of values.

First, we jokingly say employees today listen to radio station “W.I.I.F.M.,” or “What’s in it for me?” Workers are keenly interested in how much you pay and what benefits you offer. They see themselves as providing you, the employer, with a needed commodity and want to be fairly paid for what they offer. As we write this book, there are some harsh economic facts driving the financial concerns of Generation X and the Millennials:

  • Unemployment among young male workers is the highest it has been in 61 years.
  • S. workers spend an average of one month per year more working than they did 10 years ago, yet real wages have steadily declined since 1974.
  • Home ownership may be unrealistic for many members of Generation X and the Millennials. The median price of a home (adjusted for inflation) has increased 78 percent in the past 30 years. Home ownership is at its lowest level in 50 years.
  • About a third of American workers under age 35 live at home with their parents and are far less likely to have health‐care insurance or job security than they were 10 years ago.

In addition to financial challenges, younger employees look to the future they will be inheriting and see an unsure economic future for organizations, global pollution, crime, immigration challenges, all leading to a sense of powerlessness. Experienced managers often see these skeptical employees as “negative” and “jaded,” noting they don’t share the same sense of optimism that the manager did when he or she started working.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects for today’s manager, though, is this generation’s lack of respect for authority and limited interest in titles. Gen Y was the first to grow up in an egalitarian home atmosphere. Both parent and child had rights and provided input into family affairs. Further, this was the first generation that spent long hours on their own, after school, waiting for parents to return home after  work. Divorce and single working moms created latchkey kids who were independent, resilient, and adaptable. The ability to fend for themselves has resulted in a more self‐reliant, autonomous employee. Gen Yers are being raised as the most child‐centric generation in the history of the United States. They’ve been showered with attention and recognition for their achievements. They are technically the most literate of all generations. They display deep‐seated confidence in their abilities and expect to be treated as an equal player from day one. Some display so much confidence that it is misread for arrogance or cockiness.

Based on historic workplace values, what skills did it take for supervisors prior to the 1980s to effectively manage their workers? If the worker was loyal to the boss, loyal to the company, and thankful to have a job, the skills needed to manage might look like those outlined in the following chart.


Skills to Manage Employees: Past and Present

Supervisory Skills Needed: Historically Supervisory Skills Needed: Today
Ability to controlDelegationDirectiveProblem solvingStrong authority figure

Technical expertise

Clarifying expectationsCoaching and counselingCommunicationConfidenceConsulting











Problem solving



Team building

How is that for a list of what is required for supervisors to do their jobs effectively? One seminar participant stated, “You almost need to be a psychologist to get the job done.” In many ways, he is right. Supervising today is much more difficult than it was even as recently as 20 years ago. Technical expertise is still required of supervisors, just as it has been historically. But today, being technically sound is no longer enough if one wants to be a successful supervisor.

Ten years ago we could look at the list of what today’s workers want and agree that it would be nice if we could provide a work environment like that. We might even agree that it would be theoretically the right thing to do. Today, however, we are faced with a new reality, and that is, if you are managing a business where the majority of your front‐line employees are members of Gen X and the Millenials, your business will not be successful and may not even survive unless you manage them well. Given the changing values younger employees bring with them to the workplace and the challenges associated with the downsizing of our teams resulting in fewer people doing more work, it makes sense that effectively managing the workers of today is not an option, it is mandatory.

The challenge for all supervisors today is to gain the attention, trust, enthusiasm, and commitment of their employees. It is no longer adequate to assemble, organize, and manage capital, raw materials, and a workforce within a tightly defined system of production. What is required is the leadership skills to create work environments of creativity, innovation, and enthusiasm so that once in, our employees are committed, loyal, and stay with us. In the following chapters, we will discuss the skills that help build relationships, encourage motivated employees, and foster a creative environment. The remaining chapters are devoted to enhancing your skills to become a confident, successful leader in today’s environment.


[1] Lee, M. A., & Mather, M. (June, 2008). U.S. labor force trends. Population Bulletin, 63(2).


[2] Lee, M. A., & Mather, M. (June, 2008). U.S. labor force trends. Population Bulletin, 63(2).

[3] Jewell, R. American workers and employers agree: new entry-level workers are not prepared for the 21st century workplace. Corporate Voices. (March 3rd, 2010).

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