Challenges of Staff Supervision

February 01, 2016

By Guest Blogger

Edited by Ellen Badger

Welcome to the second edition of Advice From the Field, a monthly online column that offers trusted career and professional development advice for international educators at all levels. This month we get helpful tips from two experienced international educators professionals on how to handle some of the common challenges that come along with supervising staff.

Q. I've just been promoted within my office, and now I'm supervising someone who used to be my peer. It feels kind of awkward. How can I best do this?

A. Diana Lopez, Retired, University of Tennessee I was in exactly this situation many years ago. I was working in an office where I reported to the vice chancellor and everyone else in that office reported to the director. I knew nothing about their work, but in less than a year, I was placed in a supervisory position over them. There were two things I did to help ease the situation.

The first was to sit down with each one of them and learn their jobs. I told them that I was well aware of their expertise and knowledge and that I was counting on them to continue to do their jobs while I learned. Everyone stayed on for the first year until I could get a good feel for the entire operation, then several decided to move on. For those who stayed, I began delegating more responsibility to them. I would include them in the interview process, seek their opinions on procedural issues, appoint them to committees, and support their professional development. Two eventually became assistant directors in the office, and one of them took over my position as director several years later when I moved on. We are still friends today.

A. Linda Heaney, Founder, Linden Educational Services Supervisors are charged with creating a trusting, respectful, drama-free environment in order for staff to work productively and collegially. When roles change, not everyone readily accepts the new pattern. The key is to remember that each person has his or her role to play and a job to do. They are not the same job or the same role. Differences matter.

I learned this important lesson early in my career at the Fulbright Commission in Malaysia. Over a period of two years, my lifetime mentor went from being my boss to being my peer to working for me. She started as the executive director when the person holding the job came to the United States for an 18-month master’s degree. During that time, she created the atmosphere, made the decisions, and I followed along. When she substituted for a colleague on maternity leave, we worked together and both reported to the executive director. Finally, she volunteered in my office and I was her supervisor.

Initially, this was awkward for me, as I hesitated to give her guidance. However, she knew her role and insisted I provide direction for her and the office. In every situation, she accepted the role she had at the time and did her job competently and professionally.

I took this lesson to my next job at a non-profit in Washington, D.C., where I was hired over an internal candidate. It was difficult in the beginning because she knew more about the details of the work and office than I did. I focused on listening and learning from her, treating her with respect, and remembering that my job, as her supervisor, was to support her in her work and do my job as well as I could. It took time and patience on both of our parts but we developed a supportive, professional relationship and that was the goal.

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"Advice from the Field" is a joint initiative of NAFSA’s Phase II Member Interest Group (MIG) and the NAFSA Career Center. The column is edited by Ellen Badger, coordinator of the Phase II MIG. For additional career resources, visit