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Seven Traits of Great Field Supervisors

The best-run EMS organizations — those with high employee engagement and sterling customer care — have great field supervisors. Unfortunately, field supervision is one of the least-recognized areas of the EMS management structure.

Many EMS organizations with fine providers and bright leaders fail to excel because they have have the wrong people in field supervision. Field supervisors set the tone for what really goes on in an organization.

They are the number one ingredient in employee engagement. They translate organizational expectations for the workers. They determine how the upper management story is told on the street, listen to the stories from the field, then carry them up to the people controlling the resources. Supervisors see what goes on in the field and determine how recognition and criticism is passed along to workers.

One of the most important steps in creating great supervisors is selecting the right people up front. Too often, people are made supervisors simply because they are willing to do the job, want to move up, and are good at making upper management feel good. Those characteristics may work in the short term, but, ultimately, field providers will rebel against such supervision and derail the organization’s performance. The next time you’re looking for a supervisor, try testing candidates for the following seven characteristics:

1. They’re reluctant to take on the job

Field supervision is a hard and demanding position. It has all of the bad hours of field work without the satisfaction of simply running calls and then going home. Furthermore, it comes with more responsibility but often not much more pay.

Be wary of the worker who appears eager to jump into a supervisor spot. That person may just be looking for a way off the street and up the ladder. Instead, look for people who love running calls, taking care of people, and hanging out with other providers, and don’t be turned off it’s there’s an initial reluctance toward becoming a field supervisor. Of course, you may have to do some heavy recruiting to attract these street lovers, but it will be worth it. They will bring their passion into the position, keep you growing as a leader, and make sure that the right stuff is attended to.

2. They make good EMS partners

Being a good supervisor demands people skills, which  are hard to identify in an interview or through testing. Even more, EMS is a quirky business, and you need to a supervisor who understands those quirks.

The best way to find someone with the right people skills is by finding the person others like to partner with. Your field providers will guide you to the best potential supervisor; the person who is not well liked as a partner will be hated as a supervisor.

3. They’re not a stickler for rules

Making and enforcing  rules is not the way to solve day-to-day problems. It’s not rules that keep the operation flowing smoothly, nor do they inspire tired street providers to smile at the third or forth cranky patient on a night shift. Again, it’s people skills.

But because this is largely not emphasized in the supervisor job description, too many in this position see their job as monitoring and enforcing the rules. Beware of hiring supervisors who know all the rules, and instead, go for the person who cares about individuals and understands the value of relationships. Look for someone who knows what is right even if there is no rule or policy.

4. They take a stand

The worst kind of supervisor is one who rubber stamps upper management. Initially, these people seem to make management’s job easier, but in the long run cannot be trusted to accurately portray what’s happening with the troops.

Go for the supervisor who is willing to challenge you and argue for the people he or she supervises. Go for a supervisor who is hard to sell on change, dubious about management’s intention, and fiercely protective of medics. This person will keep the organization honest and prevent hordes of street providers from beating down your office door. It’s easier to deal with one tough supervisor than a crew of angry medics.

5. They listen

Time and again, street providers say no one listens to them. Watch how your potential supervisor behaves around others. Is he or she the main storyteller? Does this person have all the answers and tells others how to do things?

Go for the candidate who has enough self-confidence to let others have both the first and last words. Go for the one who holds back and hears more than squeaky wheels. Listeners will go much further in keeping your people enthused, excited, and committed.         

6. They ‘get it’

EMS isn’t just about patient care. It’s about having a functional organizational structure that can buy ambulances and pay its workers. Street providers need to focus on,and fight for, good patient care. Leaders and upper management need to focus on the politics, the funding, and the strategic planning. The supervisor sits flat in the middle of both. The supervisor needs to understand  the importance of both, and hire the ones who get that.

7. They go on vacation

Supervisors burn out left and right, and I believe it’s the most difficult and stressful job in the organization. It’s largely more thankless than being a provider, so go for the person who stubbornly recognizes the need to recharge and take time away from the stress. He or she will enjoy other aspects of life, and return feeling refreshed. Workaholics need not apply.

It’s not easy to find someone with all of these charactersistcs, so focus on those with at least four of the seven, and work on helping them develop the rest. Strong supervision will demand an investment of time, patience and trust, but doing so will pay huge dividends when you discover that the day-to-day operation of the organization is running smoothly without you. Then you will be able to get on with truly leading, not just managing the organization.