Business Operations

Training frontline supervisors to be effective coaches and mentors


Social enterprises hold dual goals related to business and programmatic outcomes, and effective supervision and coaching impacts both. An effective supervisor can lead to better technical performance and better development of soft skills, which in turn leads to higher productivity, a higher degree of employable skills, and ultimately an easier transition to outside employers.



As usual, coaching in a social enterprise adds complexities relative to traditional business operations. A supervisor at a traditional business is expected to manage overall business of the employee and increase productivity and operational efficiency, while minimizing turnover. On the other hand, a supervisor at a social enterprise is expected to increase job readiness of the employee, helping workers maintain contact with services and persist through the “dosage” period – all while increasing positive transitions into the traditional workforce. These goals are often held in addition to those of a traditional business supervisor.


Initial Takeaways from Surveys and Focus Groups

In 2016, REDF embarked on a learning project to understand more about the role of social enterprise frontline supervisors. To do so, we surveyed a number of directors from various social enterprises as well as conduced several focus groups of social enterprise supervisors themselves. From this, we synthesized our findings into several initial takeaways which we outline below.

Supervisors are recognized and appreciated for their role in the social enterprise, but aren’t held accountable for worker outcomes

Across the board, social enterprise leaders view supervisors as the primary source of feedback to the worker, but no one tracks clients outcomes by supervisor. Though 75% of social enterprise’s view mentorship as a core part of supervisors’ job responsibility, few link supervisor compensation or incentives to outcomes. There is often a disconnect between the level of impact social enterprise directors see supervisors as having on job readiness (4 of 5 on the survey results) and how much of the actual responsibility is placed with supervisors (3 of 5 on the survey).

Supervisors are evaluated primarily on business performance

Supervisors are typically evaluated on their individual performance and/or metrics tied to business performance, rather than on mission-related outcomes (such as worker persistence in enterprise, % of crew with positive exits, etc.). This creates the impression that business outcomes matter more than mission.

Supervisor compensation and incentive structure is not commensurate with the value we think they can have

Approximately 75% of the social enterprises surveyed utilize an hourly pay structure for supervisors. This is a pay structure that is more similar to the program participants than to the salaried positions for other administrative staff. This is not commensurate with the value we think they can have.

Most organizations lack a true culture of coaching and mentorship

Though many social enterprises reported offering professional development opportunities, they found that few supervisors actually utilize them. Professional development generally entails a training session – there tends to be little follow-up or integration of materials into day-to-day operations.

Supervisors are well positioned to deliver real time, on the job feedback. We should invest heavily in training them to effectively deliver it.

Many supervisors are promoted up through the ranks and have learned solely from examples set by their past supervisors. 83% of social enterprises surveyed said coaching/mentorship training is offered, but generally only about half of supervisors take advantage of it.

Supervisors have deep empathy with their workers, often because of personal experience with barriers.

This motivation is a strength we should help them leverage to become more effective coaches. Though a small percentage of supervisors are promoted through the program, a substantial portion face or have faced similar workforce barriers. Demographics of supervisors often look similar to their crews, though supervisors tend to be older, more experienced, and have finished their GEDs.



These are just initial takeaways from a relatively small sampling of social enterprises. However, we believe these themes may be prevalent in many social enterprises. It is worth taking the time to think about how supervisor professional development is structured and implemented at your social enterprise. What investments have you made? What success have you had? What challenges have you faced? How have you integrated this into your organization’s culture?

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