Support Growth, Be Open to Failure, and Other Supervisor Lessons Learned

May 21, 2014

The first time I supervised another person, I was intimidated. The first three months to a year of supervising someone else can be challenging. I know I am not the first manager to ask, “Am I doing this right?”

My supervisory relationship with Mabinty Quarshie began four years ago when, fresh out of graduate school, I started working full time at George Mason University’s Women and Gender Studies Center. Mabinty and I worked together for two years at the Center — she was a student assistant, and I was a program coordinator — before I left for a position at AAUW in 2012. As I prepared to leave, I quietly nudged Mabinty to look at D.C.-area internships, hoping she would come work for us. She joined the AAUW team last year as the college/university relationships intern.

Now, as Mabinty prepares for the next chapter in her life — she will be entering a graduate program in journalism at Georgetown University — I feel a mixture of pride, sadness, and joy. Looking back at our four-year professional relationship, I know that we have both learned a lot about supervision and managing up. Here are a few of the lessons I learned as a supervisor and mentor.

You don’t have to be an expert in everything to be an effective supervisor.

As a college sophomore, Mabinty balanced her roles as a student assistant at the Center and president of a feminist student organization on her campus. I saw her leadership skills in action early on as she prepared for her university’s annual Take Back the Night rally, delegating to her peers and organizing people for this campus-wide event.

I had never attended a Take Back the Night rally and didn’t know all the details of what went into this event. But even though I wasn’t an expert in this area, I could be an effective supervisor and provide support and guidance. Mabinty and I discussed how to delegate assignments to other members of the student organization and how to identify collaborators to help increase attendance at the event and broaden the audience.

 It’s important to be open to failure — both as a supervisor and as an employee.

Even though we don’t like hearing it, we learn just as much from failure as we do from success. Mabinty and I have learned to be open about feedback and to allow room for mistakes. As a manager, it can be hard to be vulnerable and to acknowledge your mistakes.

At different points in our professional relationship, I’ve asked Mabinty how my management style is working for her and if there are ways that I can improve. When we complete a project or reach a milestone, I want her perspective on how the project and process went. She’s given me some of the best feedback on my work.

Own your strengths and weaknesses.

Through this supervisory relationship, I also learned how to build on complementary strengths and weaknesses. Our weekly check-in meetings were an incredibly valuable way to have ongoing discussions about these qualities. It’s much easier to work together as a team when you know what your teammates are bringing to the table.

You also have to know and be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses before communicating them to anyone else. Many students complete assessments in college that highlight their strengths and working styles. I’ve had a lot of success with Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment to discover more about my team’s top strengths. You can also ask your team to list and share their self-identified strengths with each other.

Show appreciation.

Building a culture of appreciation is an important part of my supervisory path. At the women and gender studies center, our team made a commitment to appreciate individuals and be open, specific, and sincere about acknowledging teammates. This practice continues at AAUW.

For instance, I appreciate Mabinty’s organizational skills. If you’ve ever wondered how our team manages the many applications we receive for programs like the Campus Action Projects or theNational Student Advisory Council, look no further than Mabinty. When we host C/U 101 webinars, I always make a point to thank Mabinty, who usually live tweets the program, for her social media skills. I’ll show a picture of Mabinty and let our participants know who’s on Twitter during our webinars. I prefer to show my appreciation both personally and publicly, depending on the work that Mabinty has done.

It also helps to get creative with ways to show appreciation. I publicly highlight her accomplishments during department meetings and by sending out an e-mail to other staff. I also make it a point to be specific and authentic when showing my appreciation directly to her. And when I’m out on travel and Mabinty is managing our C/U inbox, I send her a Starbucks e-gift card to thank her for leading on her own.

Recognize that there is no one way to supervise.

What comes to mind when you think of your ideal supervisor? The answer to this question differs from person to person and changes over the course of one’s career. There is no one-size-fits-all model for a good supervisor. I’ve learned to tailor my management style to skill level and experience.

Model good work habits.

I always strive to find ways to model good work habits. My latest effort is to be a role model on striking a balance between work and home life. For example, I can’t be a good role model for Mabinty if I’m checking e-mails at midnight.

Support growth in meaningful ways.

One of the most memorable things a supervisor said to me was, “I know you’re not going to be here forever.” As an employee, this stuck with me as I charted out my professional development plans. As a supervisor, it has motivated me to ask my interns and staff, “What’s your next step?” Remember it’s okay if an intern doesn’t always know what the next step is.

It’s also important to be thoughtful about the skills that are developed in an internship position. Give your interns meaningful tasks that not only support the program you’re working for but also help build their skills. Mabinty was open about her goal of going into journalism and wrote for AAUW’s blog. She, just like other staff members, had to go through the process of pitching her ideas and having her content reviewed by multiple editors, an experience that will serve her well in her chosen career.


Do you have tips that you’d recommend to other supervisors? Share in the comments below.



Christine Hernandez and Mabinty Quarshie hold signs from their alma matters California State University, Fullerton and George Mason University.

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  1. Kate Skegg says:

    Christine, What a thoughtful post!
    I think another tip is for supervisors to adopt a calm manner which is non-threatening or bullying, but supportive and constructive. John Heron’s Six Categories of Intervention help analyse how a supervisor delivers help: whether it is authoritative or facilitative.

  2. […] Christine and I have now worked with each other for four years — first at George Mason University and then at AAUW. Our relationship taught me professional lessons that could be helpful for other new professionals and interns out there. […]

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