It’s no secret that starting a new job is exciting but difficult for a number of reasons. For introverts like me, one of the biggest challenges of this process can be the need to develop relationships with and learn the working styles of a whole new group of coworkers, including one’s manager. Your relationship with a manager will often define much of your experience in a new position. So how can graduate students and new professionals get off on the right foot with their supervisors and effectively “manage up” in their career? As a new professional myself who has worked in several different roles in higher education, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Get clarity on expectations: Many misunderstandings and conflicts in the workplace can be avoided when everyone is on the same page about what’s expected of them. With your new supervisor, be sure to discuss things like whether you need to be checking email on nights/weekends, how they want to be informed if you have a time off request, how/how often they want to be updated about what you’re working on, and how they like to give feedback (and receive it - see 360-degree feedback) in their relationships with supervisees. It’s also helpful to gain a clear understanding of what tasks and processes they will expect you to “own” and take the lead on versus which ones they will be directing with your support.
Take an active role in your own professional growth and development: Set your own agenda for any 1:1 meetings with your supervisor, and always come prepared with talking points and questions. Take advantage of this 1:1 time and performance reviews to discuss your career goals as well. Don’t be afraid to bring up these topics - letting your supervisor know that you’re invested in your own development will set a good impression, and it could create avenues for you to take on more projects and tasks in your current role that align with where you see yourself in the future.
Offer to help: If your supervisor has a lot on their plate and you have some down time, consider asking them how you can help lighten their workload. Not only is this an effective way to show you’re a team player, but it could also give you an opportunity to take on more responsibility (if that’s what you’re looking for) and/or learn a new process or skill.
Do your research: If you are not lucky enough to be provided with a comprehensive transition guide when you start your role, be sure to look through your office’s website and archival files to learn more about policies and procedures, as well as precedents for implementation. You may also be surprised at how much information you can turn up with a simple Google search. Being resourceful and looking through past information can help you get a better handle on your role and shows that you are willing to take initiative.
When in doubt, ask: Most of the time, a supervisor will not be annoyed if you go to them with questions; if anything, they will be grateful that you checked with them before proceeding with a task and potentially making a mistake based on not having enough information. It’s their job to ensure that you are properly trained in your new role, so if you need more explanation on a process after doing your own research, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Directly asking them about their preferred communication and working styles, as well as letting them know how they can best support you in your position, can also go a long way in building a positive supervisor-supervisee relationship.
Communicate your needs: According to Blanchard and Hersey’s situational leadership model (1977), an effective manager will adapt their leadership style to vary the amounts of direction and support they provide to their supervisees at different stages of the supervisee’s development. However, if the levels of direction and support you are receiving do not align with what you need to be successful, consider communicating those needs so your supervisor can meet you where you’re at. Professional and personal mentors are also a great resource if you need advice on how to frame these conversations.
Supervision is a joint effort and a two-way street. What you bring to your relationship with your supervisor will have just as much of an impact on how you work together as what they bring to the dynamic. So take an active role in shaping that relationship to what you want it to be, and embrace the learning process!
Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing Human Resources (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall.
Shupp, M.R. (2014, April). Synergistic supervision in the supervisory relationship [Conference session]. ACPA Annual Conference, Indianapolis, IN. https://www.myacpa.org/sites/default/files/SynergisticSupervisionPresentation2013%20%282%29.pdf
What is 360 degree feedback? (n.d.). Custom Insight. https://www.custominsight.com/360-degree-feedback/what-is-360-degree-feedback.asp
Author: Tara Hardy (she/her) is a Faculty Affairs Administrator at New York University, where she also received her M.A. in Higher Education and Student Affairs. In addition to serving on the leadership team for the New Professionals and Graduate Students Steering Committee, she has also volunteered in several regional and national committees within NASPA and is a Graduate Associate Program alum. She is a proud first-generation student and professional.