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First time supervisor - The adventure begins

1993 D4 Rebuild - Is that a beard?
This past week I helped interview some candidates for a shift supervisor position.  Interestingly enough, all of the candidates would be first-time supervisors.  While reviewing the candidates in a meeting just a few days ago, I couldn't help thinking about my first supervisory experience.  An intertwined chain of events concluding with a whirl-wind last minute interview process landed me as one of the youngest general foremen in the company at 27.  Before I realized what was happening, I was supervising over 45 skilled millwrights with an average age of 44.  Many of these guys were old enough to be my father, two of them my grandfather, and I still couldn't grow a decent beard.

Along with the 45 skilled millwrights were a day turn foreman and three planner foremen, all with 25+ years of experience to my 6.  I was very fortunate to have a strong mentor who helped guide me through a treacherous workplace minefield.  Rather than micro-managing me, he lent me a wide berth and allowed me to come to him for advice.  He encouraged me to ask the questions, rather than telling me how to do every aspect of my job.  I also received a great deal of latitude from the production supervisors and steelmaking manager.  Within about six months, my feet were wet, and I was becoming more comfortable in the new position.  That first six months however, was the most difficult of my career.  The step from field engineer to general foreman was as daunting as jumping across a canyon.

They don't teach about labor relations, progressive discipline, workplace violence, or dealing with troubled employees in engineering school.  They didn't even teach me anything about these challenges in any kind of company training.  I certainly learned, mostly the hardway, about how easily people will try to take advantage of a greenhorn.  What was even more difficult was working with employees that were recovering alcoholics and drug users and the stresses in their lives that would affect their recovery, attendance, and work-family conflicts.  It was a challenge to balance the responsibilities of a supervisor with those of an advisor and an active listener.  Complicating matters further was a tenuous labor/management relationship that created havoc on a weekly basis. 

1996 New General Foreman
Plenty of mistakes were made while juggling the new responsibilities of leadership with the convoluted world of labor contracts, restrictive purchasing, departmental fiefdoms, and workplace backstabbing.  One thing I made sure I never did was make an issue out of my education.  The steel industry is notorious for not appreciating higher education, and framing your diplomas and hanging them in your office at work is the most effective way of pissing everyone off.  I made a point of not challenging a subordinate or one of the millwrights unless I knew for a fact that I was correct.  Although sometimes I let my youthful cockiness get the better of me,  I was usually able to work with guys 20 years my senior, who certainly had their whiskers, and within a few short years earned whiskers of my own.  I put all of my effort into consistent decision making, active listening, holding  hard line when it was needed, and helping out others in getting their priorities on the top of the list.  I was able to earn a great deal of respect with many of my older peers, and many of the guys working for me.  I can't say that I was every one's favorite, because my name certainly was on the sh*thouse walls plenty of times, even though I had those walls painted monthly.

I was fortunate to have a successful three and a half year tenure that led to a once in a career opportunity when my supervisory experience allowed me to join a new steel company building a state of the art facility.  When I switched employers back in 2000, I earned the opportunity to work with some of the best people in the industry.  Nothing so far has compared to those 3-1/2 dynamic years in the barrel for the challenge and reward that it offered, even though I made more mistakes in those three years than the 12 years since.  Making mistakes is an integral part of learning.  As long as we don't make the same mistakes over and over.  Earning respect is about doing what we say each day.  Even when we must administer discipline to an employee, as long as we act objective and consistently without favoritism, our actions will show our professionalism.  Nobody enjoys being corrected, but if we correct others while at the same time performing to the same expectations, those we supervise will acknowledge that we are doing our job, and the motives aren't personal.

2002 SDI-CCI EAF Startup
(I am on the far right, with whiskers)
2010 Whiskers no longer needed
or wanted.
If you are going for your first supervisory position, don't let it go to your head.  There are aspect of leadership that are paramount.  The ability to lead, not push.  The ability to inspire and engage, not intimidate.  The determination to put your foot down when everything is on the line, stand your ground, and make it count.  And most of all, the wisdom to understand when we are wrong, and someone else is right, regardless of ego  (easy eh?).


  1. I'm a HR Manager for the civilian Navy and was doing some research on first time supervision. I really enjoyed your blog -both for your wit and wisdom!

    Good luck in your future endeavors!

    1. Thank you for your comments, I am glad to be of some help to you. Take Care,



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