Stronger training urged for front-line supervisors

Investing in training for front-line supervisors at federal agencies will significantly improve employee performance and help agencies meet growing challenges, a public administration specialist said Tuesday.

James Thompson, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said front-line supervisors have a bigger influence on employees' day-to-day performance than managers at other levels, and provide the most relevant leadership.

"Front-line supervisors are in relatively neglected strata in the management hierarchy," he said at an event sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "Federal employees deserve to have good leaders. . . . The federal government can and should do more to train supervisors as leaders."

Thompson's assertions are reflected in a new report outlining training programs at six agencies that he believes could serve as examples for the rest of government -- the CIA, Defense Logistics Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Government Accountability Office, IRS and National Security Agency.

Thompson found that while each agency needs to develop a unique plan, all agencies must invest in a strong leadership development program that includes classroom education and training, performance feedback from a manager's supervisors and subordinates, mentoring programs and challenging job assignments.

The report also argued that as the government moves toward pay for performance and other human resource changes, the absence of "soft skills" for some supervisors is likely to become more apparent. "In a pay-for-performance environment, supervisors must be prepared to deal with the human dynamics that will ensue," the report stated. "If poorly handled, such situations can result in withdrawal, higher levels of employee grievances and a diminution of performance."

The report also recommended that agencies mandate leadership training for all supervisors and remain committed to follow-up training to ensure skills remain intact. DLA, for example, provides five levels of two-year training programs to supervisors, depending on years of experience, the report noted. As supervisors move up in rank, they are required to participate in the next level of training, said Jeff Neal, the agency's human resources director, at Tuesday's event.

Thompson also recommended that the government create a certification standard for supervisors, barring them from holding a supervisory position until they receive the proper training and demonstrate specific competencies. Once certified, they would be included in a governmentwide "supervisory corps" to "provide a collective identity for supervisors and enhance prospects for achieving needed investments in training."

The report recommended that the Defense and Homeland Security departments try out the supervisory corps concept in a pilot program.

Homeland Security's Human Capital Operational Plan requires that all of its 13,000 managers receive training, much of which will be devoted to "soft skills" such as collaborative communication, feedback and coaching, the report noted. But testing the supervisory corps idea would allow policy-makers to determine a set of common training standards and help the Office of Personnel Management prescribe specific curriculum requirements, Thompson said.

Meanwhile, the Partnership recently launched the Annenberg Leadership Institute, which aims to enhance the federal government's existing training programs. In March 2008, the institute's first class will begin a nine-month program that will entail on-the-job learning projects and six courses, according to Tom Fox, director of the institute.

In the meantime, the Partnership plans to identify pressing management challenges that need to be addressed at six agencies. Once those agencies are identified, agency leaders will select a total of 30 employees to participate in the institute's 2008 class, Fox said.

Thompson and Partnership President Max Stier commended recent proposals by OPM and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, that promote leadership development at agencies. Akaka's legislation, which recently passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would require that new supervisors undergo training their initial year, with mandatory training every three years thereafter on how to evaluate and work with employees to develop performance expectations.

"It's not just helping the agency get the fish," Stier said. "It's helping [agencies] train the fishermen."

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