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Five Surefire Ways to Ruin an EMS Field Supervisor

When Jan came to our leadership academy three years ago, she was enthused, motivated and feisty. She had just become a field supervisor and passionately wanted to learn and do good things. She was fun to be around and full of energy and hope. When we talked about employee engagement and the unique challenges of leading EMS people, she got it. Jan was one of those supervisors any employer would be proud to have. I ran into Jan recently at an EMS gathering in her state and found her burnt out, unmotivated and planning a return to street work. Sadly, her story is not unusual. Field supervisors perform one of the most important jobs in EMS, but they often do so without executive leaders understanding and valuing the role. Instead, many organizations ruin field supervisors. Here’s how.

1. Executives fail to see supervisors as key engagement leaders.

The secret sauce of great EMS workplaces is engagement – employees who are excited, enthused, committed, loyal and willing to do more than required. Field supervisors are the kingpins of engagement. They are closest to field staff, and the prime relationship builders with field staff. Their actions and behaviors tell the troops what the organization cares about, and what they do or don’t do has a big impact on engagement

Jan’s executive didn’t get this. He failed to see supervisors as leaders of engagement and treated them as low-level operations coordinators and structured the job as such. The result was that engagement was poor, both field supervisors and field staff became frustrated, and the organization and its mission suffered.

When executives really believe supervisors are key engagement leaders, it changes how they view, value, hire, develop, reward and support this important team member.

2. Executives overload supervisors.

“I come to work feeling like I start my day behind,” Jan told me. Supervisors are often the task-delegation dumping ground. Paperwork, daily operational tasks, supplies, shifts filling, responding to calls, special events, employee evaluations, big reporting ratios, and special projects all pile up on the supervisor.  

When supervisors are overloaded and priorities are not clear, they often will give attention to the operational tasks – the stuff that is urgent and time sensitive (paperwork, filling shifts, supplies). What gets dropped is the relational interaction with the frontline. There is no time to listen, encourage and support. Eventually this creates a disconnect between the supervisors and the frontline, leaving everyone without a key ingredient to great workplaces – connection.  

3. Executives fail to arm supervisors with great people skills.

Sending a medic into the field without the right clinical skills would be unthinkable, but we often do it with field supervisors.

Field supervisors need the best people-skills in the organization. Here’s why. Supervisors are stuck between management and field staff. We want them to be good listeners and great storytellers. We want them to hold the staff accountable and at the same time love and care for them. We expect them to absorb the frustration from the street and still build support for the organization’s mission. We expect them to encourage the timid and rein in the cowboys. And, we demand they do all of this while keeping the lid on the chaotic world of emergency operations.

While great people skills are often innate, they can also be developed. In our EMS Supervisor Academy, we devote more time to developing people skills than any other topic.

4. Executives leave supervisors out of key decision-making processes.

Jan’s greatest frustration was being left out of decisions that impacted the troops. “Why won’t they ask us?” she wondered. “I get stuck explaining bad decisions. All they had to do was ask.”  When supervisors are left out of the decision process, their loyalties become divided and their job becomes impossible.  

When a decision impacts the field staff, bring in supervisors ahead of time. Let them inform the decisions and be part of the process. Doing so gives them an understanding of the “why” and helps them buy in.    

5. Executives fail to provide executive leadership.

Frontline people have questions: Where are we going? Why are we doing this? How does this connect with our primary mission of taking good care of patients? These are leadership questions. When executives fail to provide clear and inspiring answers to these questions, the supervisor is stuck trying to figure out the answer. “I have no idea where we’re headed,” Jan confessed.

Most EMS executives are good at managing the business of EMS. But truly leading is rare. When executives actually lead, supervisors can then connect the dots.

At its core, leading is about building enthusiasm for doing something or going somewhere. When supervisors understand the “where” and the “why,” they have a powerful story to tell the troops.

At the end of our conversation, I encouraged Jan to find another employer – one who valued the role of supervisor and designed the role for success.