A Persistent Corps of Engineers Challenge – The Transition from Technical Contributor to Supervisor

I recently had the opportunity to listen to Sue Englehardt’s presentation on “The Road to Human Capital Success” where she provided an overview of human resource performance at the enterprise level.  If you don’t already know, Ms. Englehardt is the Director of Human Resources for the Army Corps of Engineers.  One key issue she noted is the persistent problem of Corps supervisors not addressing the low performers on their staff.

According to a June, 2007 study by the Partnership for Public Service, the federal government lags behind the private sector in the category of “Effective Leadership”.

One key factor where the percent of positive responses from government employees falls behind the private sector most dramatically is the overall job being done by one’s immediate supervisor.  The study goes on to point out that, “within the federal sector, individuals are selected as supervisors largely on the basis of their technical qualifications; and unfortunately, those with the best ‘hard’ technical skills do not always make the best leaders. The ‘soft’ skills such as communication, team-building, and conflict resolution are of equal, if not greater, importance.”

For more than a decade, my firm, Virtual CEO Consulting, has either implemented climate surveys for Corps Divisions and Districts, or we have been asked to interpret the results of existing IG or Command Climate surveys.  These surveys confirm that many USACE supervisors avoid confronting low performance. Instead they simply give more work to their top performers, creating an unfair balance of workload.  This approach only encourages the low-performer to remain invisible while running the risk of burning out the top performers.  And, of course, the problem worsens during times of limited budgets and resources, such as the present.

Why Does This Problem Persist?

It would be an unfair generalization to conclude that, simply because engineers and scientists may be attracted to careers based on logic (left brain), they are therefore inherently uncomfortable with the “soft” skills (right brain) required to be an effective leader.  In fact, over the last 10 years, I have personally met many excellent supervisors who just happened to have entered the Corps through one of the sciences.  But I do think it’s fair to assume that if you work for an organization with a higher population of scientists and technicians than say a hotel chain, you could anticipate a higher percentage of individuals who might struggle in their transition from individual, technically-competent contributor to supervisor.

Think of It Logically

Sciences like engineering, biology, and so on are built on hypotheses that are proven and perfected over time.  I believe that engineers enjoy a key aspect of their work:  They can predict future outcomes based on past successes.  They can reuse equations, formulas, blueprints, and so on to repeat successes.  If you build 50 dams and they all work, number 51 is probably going to work too.   Success can often be predicted in the sciences.  And any time a person feels that success is likely, their confidence and self-esteem improves.

The problem is that the human behavior encountered by all supervisors is anything but predictable.  So if a person has gravitated to a career that produces steady, predictable outcomes, he or she may feel uncomfortable in the arena of human behavior, where outcomes are to say the least… tricky.  If these individuals were interested in more socially-oriented careers, they might have selected careers in marketing, advertising, nursing, teaching, public relations, social studies, politics, and the like.

Remember that we all like to feel good about our performance, whether it be in an office, on a golf course, or on stage.   If a person has spent his or her career hitting home runs with their technical prowess, they may be tempted to stick with these tactical successes rather than venture into the unknown.  This is why many new supervisors who have come from the technical ranks, would rather be in their office reviewing a structural design than out talking to their staff.   We repeat those actions that bring positive consequences and avoid those that bring (or we fear could bring) negative consequences or, worse yet, failure.

What Does Supervisory Avoidance Behavior Cost the Corps Each Year?

Let’s use a fictitious District to make a point about wasted productivity.  Let’s say there is a District with 500 employees.  And let’s assume that just 10% of these employees (50) are not contributing fairly to the workload.  Assume they are contributing about half of what they are capable of.  Let’s further assume that their fully loaded salaries, including benefits, averages $50,000 per year.  If you are getting 50% of their capabilities, this means you are paying $50,000 but receiving just $25,000 in value.  If you multiple this $25,000 loss by the 50 employees, you learn that this loss of productivity is costing this District $1,250,000 in waste each year. If one reason that these 50 low-performers are being allowed to coast is due to a lack of supervisory leadership, you can appreciate how much the avoidance behavior on the part of these supervisors is costing the Corps.  Now, multiply this example by 40+ Districts and you can begin to see the magnitude of the loss each year.  This is a real problem for the Corps, particularly during a time of shrinking budgets and resources.

What are the Solutions?

The obvious first step is, when filling a supervisory position, take into account not just the technical skills of a candidate, but also his or her potential leadership skills.  John may have superb technical competence and years of institutional knowledge.  But if once he becomes a supervisor, he runs the risk of alienating the staff and decreasing productivity and morale, what have you gained?  If after all the pros and cons are considered, John does get the job, at the very least you must plan to provide immediate training, support, and guidance.

Organizations can learn the lessons from studies like the Partnership for Public Service. The Corps can respond to the feedback it consistently receives from its employees and make better decisions about promotions.  The fact that someone has been waiting a while to get a promotion to GS12 or 13 is NOT a good reason for the promotion.

But what about a supervisor who needs some help and advice and is already in the job?  There are developmental steps that can be taken to increase his or her chances of success and simultaneously increase the output and morale of their staff:

Mentoring: Identify the supervisors and managers who you believe are solid leadership role models.  Have them spend 1 hour a week with the supervisor who needs help.  To provide structure and a way forward for these mentoring sessions, have the new supervisor privately disclose to their mentor what he or she believes to be their current strengths and areas for improvement.  Would this investment of 4 hours per month produce worthwhile returns?  It depends in part on the learning curve of the developing supervisor, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

Training: There are courses that can help to remove the apprehension these supervisors deal with when they know they should counsel an employee, but elect not to do because of discomfort.  Both the Army and the private sector provide such courses.  It is very important that these courses provide clear steps and techniques that will give the supervisor a very sensible game plan to reduce their hesitation.  Virtual CEO offers a program with these essential skills called “Corps Coaching Techniques Corps Coaching Techniques” that has been completed by over 500 Corps supervisors and managers across the country.  We call our steps The Counseling Road Map. We also offer personalized mentoring and coaching.

Evaluation: Sometimes supervisors (and managers) are oblivious to how they are perceived by their staff.  There are many tools that can provide this insight so that the supervisor can target their development.  Just Google “Leadership Assessments” or give us a call and we’ll coach you through the process.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a supervisory skills problem.  The problem persists because of the ongoing tendency to promote technically competent individuals into supervisory positions without further consideration to develop their so-called “softer” skills.   If supervisors avoid their leadership and communication duties due to discomfort with these responsibilities, low-performers maintain lackluster performance while the top performers get tired.  There is a significant annual cost relating to this issue.  Solutions exist if the Corps is willing to implement them.

I welcome your comments and opinions.  I also welcome any questions you may have regarding leadership in general or a specific supervisory situation or challenge you may have encountered.  I’ll do my best to respond quickly.  You can use the Reply link below. My responses to replies will be posted on this blog page.

Thanks for your time and consideration,