The Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop did away with slide decks full of policy to instead engage and motivate federal managers.
Being a supervisor is one of the toughest jobs in the federal government. Performance management is challenging at the best of times. Add to that an increasing pace of change, shifting HR policies, and the looming retirement wave, and supervisors' work seems nearly impossible.
Considering all those challenges, the US Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has created an innovative training program to keep supervisors up to date and motivated. The Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop directs managers to focus on the spirit and practice of effective management as well as current policy changes. If the thought of government supervisory training evokes pictures of a parade of droning subject matter experts and endless slide presentations, this workshop is not that.
APHIS launched the Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop as a pilot program in 2018 after a year of assessing needs and planning. The program's purpose was to provide intensive, in-person training that would fulfill the organization's policy of mandatory supervisory training in the areas of mentoring employees, improving employee performance and productivity, conducting performance appraisals, and dealing with unacceptable performance.
Prior to this workshop, supervisors fulfilled their training requirement with online training or infrequent in-person offerings that only addressed one or two of the required topics. Senior leadership tasked the APHIS Center for Training and Organization Development with designing a new solution.
A planning team comprising seasoned trainers, instructional systems designers, and organization development specialists, including staff from the APHIS Professional Development Center who had designed earlier workshops, got to work. The planning team sought to develop something new and creative and provide supervisors with a forum to share best practices and tools that they could take back to their teams and use immediately.
To ensure that this new approach met the organization's needs, the planning team conducted interviews with supervisors with at least two years of management experience in the agency to determine what kind of training would be most helpful to them. The team also met with SMEs throughout the HR department to determine where they saw the biggest need for improvement. The organization already had a highly regarded training program for new supervisors, so the planning team analyzed participant feedback from that program and collaborated with the facilitators and project managers to design the Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop.
Informed with all that material, the planning team developed a solution and launched two pilots in 2018 to determine whether the workshop achieved the established goals. While conducting the pilot workshops, the team gathered real-time feedback from participants on the activities and methods. The facilitators captured participants' feedback and suggestions throughout the sessions and reviewed the responses with participants at the end of each day.
The planning team incorporated the participant feedback as quickly as possible, sometimes even resulting in minor adjustments to the workshop for the following day. Those suggestions, as well as extensive feedback gathered from participants, facilitators, and SMEs post-training, resulted in the team changing some of the training content after the pilot.
The pilots included a session on building trust between supervisors and employees as well as a period of open discussion toward the end of the workshop. The feedback the team received on the trust session was that it was too basic and didn't live up to the applied nature of some of the other topics. And while the planning team designed the open discussion time for supervisors to bring their specific issues to the group for brainstorming and problem solving, participants said they instead wanted more focused time with the SMEs and that the session lacked structure, which prevented it from being useful. Participants also stated that they wanted a more practical focus on employee engagement.
Given the constructive criticism, the planning team removed the trust content and replaced it with a session that enabled participants to analyze data from the agency's employee engagement survey and work in groups to address the identified issues. In addition, the team discontinued the open session and allotted more time for focused discussions with an employee relations SME about employee performance and conduct issues.
Both replacement sessions received a great deal of positive feedback and remained in future offerings. This ongoing real-time feedback approach was so effective that the team incorporated it fully into the program design.
Ready for launch
The result of the planning team's work and feedback from the piloted sessions is a 4.5-day workshop for up to 24 experienced supervisors. For the course's purposes, an experienced supervisor is defined as someone who has been a supervisor at the US Department of Agriculture for at least two years and has completed a developmental 360-degree assessment in the past three years. The three-year timeframe is consistent with the agency requirement that all supervisors participate in 360-degree assessments every three years.
Two facilitators lead the sessions. Because of the workshop's interactive nature, the selected facilitators have prior experience with role-playing and leading simulations. And to limit the number of individuals needed to conduct the workshop, the planning team sought SMEs who had expertise in multiple HR areas.
The facilitators deliver most of the interactive content and serve as the role players in the coaching simulation sessions. The facilitators also connect with the SMEs in advance of the workshop to engage in rehearsal sessions. This preparation helps make the simulations as real as possible for the supervisors so they can practice new approaches to tough conversations.
So, what is it that makes the Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop different from other federal supervisory training?
All participants complete a developmental 360-
degree assessment that includes a one-on-one facilitated debrief in advance of the session. They spend time taking an honest look at their strengths and areas of improvement and complete a values identification exercise to develop personal leadership philosophies.
Over the course of the week, while learning and applying concepts of coaching, employee engagement, performance management, mentoring, meeting planning, and talent management, participants continue to reference and discuss their 360 results, values, and draft leadership philosophy. All the activities serve to build learners' self-awareness, expose their blind spots, and help them communicate to their teams what is most important to them. Participants walk away from the experience with detailed action plans and well-defined leadership philosophies as well as a better sense of who they are as supervisors and as human beings.
A graphic recorder captures the first two days of content. Using markers and pastels, the graphic recorder makes the great ideas and breakthroughs come to life on the walls around the participants. Learners are amazed watching the graphic recorder work, many finding it hard to believe that she can capture everything that everyone is saying and turn it into art.
The graphic recordings have included caricatures of the facilitators, colorful images of 360 assessment data graphs, employee engagement data, and adjectives describing the types of leaders that participants aspire to be.
The planning team works with the graphic recorder in advance of the workshop, sharing content and discussing how to display it to the best effect. The graphic recorder then creates a visual outline and fills it in with the participant-generated information as she puts the images on the giant paper that covers the walls.
Of course, there is plenty of room for creativity in the moment, and no two graphic-recording sessions end up alike. At the end of each workshop, the graphic recorder produces laminated copies of the artwork and shares them with the participants. They then hang the copies in their offices as a constant reminder of the lessons learned during their training.
In the workshop, participants don't just explore new approaches and policies; they apply them. The program's centerpiece is a series of simulated coaching conversations that participants have with highly skilled role players acting as employees.
Role players receive a detailed improvisational script that participants do not get to see. The script doesn't contain specific lines for the role players, but it does provide them with their motivation, justification for their behavior, and how they should react if the supervisors respond in certain ways.
The participants review concepts around employee coaching and mentoring as well as best practices in performance management, then they put them to the test. In one scenario, participants must hold an end-of-year performance conversation with an employee who expects a higher rating. In another, they must address an employee who is reported to be harassing another employee. Participants must apply the skills that they have learned, or there are real-time consequences.
The role players make their reactions as realistic as possible and push the supervisors to try a different approach than they may be used to. For example, if a supervisor is combative when addressing the employee accused of harassment, the role player becomes defensive or raises his voice. Or if a supervisor is insensitive while delivering the disappointing performance appraisal, the role player may shed tears. Participants consistently report that these role-play sessions are the highlight of the workshop and some of the most effective training exercises they have ever completed.
The situations exhibited during the role plays represent some of the toughest conversations that supervisors will face and take participants from learning about coaching employees to actually coaching. Facing such situations in a safe environment prepares learners for handling them with real employees when the stakes are high.
The final aspect that separates this workshop from other supervisory training is the focus on feedback. Participants are paired with peers for all the activities, discussing their ideas, plans, and insights and providing ongoing feedback throughout the week. They receive peer feedback on each topic and activity and apply that ongoing feedback to their action plans and leadership philosophies.
In addition to deliberate peer feedback, the workshop does include a parade of SMEs—but they aren't there to lecture. Rather, they observe the participants demonstrating their supervisory behaviors and provide feedback. They also observe the coaching conversations and note the positive aspects of the supervisors' performance as well as where there is room for improvement in both application of policy and how they communicate with employees.
That feedback leads to robust discussions about the underlying purpose and practical application of performance management and the equal employment opportunity policy. Instead of simply reading policy off slides, the SMEs discuss how the policy applies to issues participants are facing with their employees. Feedback from multiple sources (360s, peers, and SMEs) creates an environment where supervisors can validate their positive supervisory behaviors and challenge the behaviors that aren't working. It also makes participants more comfortable with giving and receiving meaningful, effective feedback, which is one of the most significant supervisory behaviors.
APHIS administers several assessments to measure the workshop's impact. Participants take a pretraining assessment approximately one month before the session, where they rate themselves on eight key supervisory skills and the frequency with which they use the target tools and approaches. The assessment also asks the supervisors to share specific challenges they are facing and questions for the facilitators and SMEs so that the workshop leaders are prepared to address participants' stated concerns.
Participants also take an assessment immediately after the workshop that focuses on their reactions to the content as well as the usefulness of the tools and approaches. One final assessment, directly linked to the preworkshop assessment, is administered eight weeks after workshop completion.
Participants in 2019 reported an average 9 percent increase between the pre-assessment and the eight-week assessment in the eight core supervisory skills. The biggest increases were in the skills of running effective meetings and holding performance discussions with employees. The average Net Promoter Score for the year was 92, meaning that almost every participant would enthusiastically recommend the workshop to their peers.
Some of the highest praise came from the sessions that coincided with the annual performance review season. In the eight-week assessment, 100 percent of participants indicated that they took a different approach to the end-of-year performance appraisal conversations based on what they learned during the workshop. Furthermore, they all reported that those conversations were effective and meaningful.
The onset of COVID-19 caused APHIS to postpone some of the Experienced Supervisor Applied Workshop sessions. The pandemic has also forced the planning team to consider how it could deliver a virtual program that would have as significant an impact as the in-person version.
During the next few months, the team will be designing a virtual workshop that focuses on the core areas of employee engagement, mentoring, and performance management, as well as action plan development and leadership philosophy. It is unreasonable to expect people to sit in a 4.5-day online course, so the team plans to break up the content into six two-hour sessions over the course of a few weeks.
Participants will complete much of the reflection and individual activities between sessions. The team will update the role-playing sessions to acknowledge the virtual working environment that most staff are dealing with now. And the coaching simulations will take place via videoconferencing, as real supervisory coaching sessions often are. The modifications will serve APHIS well in the future, enabling the organization to reach supervisors who can't travel, save money on travel and logistics, and meet remote supervisors' needs.
If you are struggling with how to make supervisory training something more than a box-checking, bureaucratic exercise, try an approach like ours. It can be expensive and labor intensive bringing supervisors, facilitators, and SMEs together for this amount of time. However, if you provide supervisors with deep self-reflection, peer feedback, and practical coaching experience, it will be well worth the investment. You will find that your team can create an experience that will engage supervisors and bring about meaningful change in the organization.