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HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #1

How to be a Great Follower

Welcome to the first issue of the James Bowles and Associates newsletter!  As I speak with different people during my coaching encounters, a number of topics of interest come up that I think would be useful to share with my colleagues.  I have decided to share those thoughts in a periodic newsletter.  As usual for me, I will try to keep these brief and leave you each month with some practical advice.  I hope you find this useful.  Your feedback is very welcome, and if you want to forward to a friend or unsubscribe please visit the links at the end of the page.

The topic that I chose to start with is FOLLOWERSHIP.  We are all inundated with materials on leadership, everything from Zen to Peter Drucker to Sun-Tzu.  However, we don't hear nearly as much about followership.  Followership is defined as what you personally do to advance the goals and plans of you leader.   Although followership may not generate as much glory as leadership, good followers are the core of a healthy, results-driven business.
Followership is important for two reasons.  First, good followers get the right things done.  They put aside distractions and focus on executing challenging plans.  In the tough environment that we currently find ourselves in, there is no shortage of distractions.  Good followers understand how they tie into greater plans, stay focused on doing the right things, and get results amidst the chaos.  Second, there is personal benefit to being a good follower.  Good followers are often chosen for key assignments, requested to be on teams, and counted on to execute.  People who show the characteristics of good followership gain job security, and can become prime candidates for future leadership positions.

So how do you become a great follower?  Research has shown that there are three reasons that drive a person's decision to follow::
  1. Belief in the Message - You will follow if the plan that you are following makes sense to you.  You should see the message as well thought out, well presented, logical, and you should understand the benefits to you if you succeed.  You should not have any unresolved questions.  You should be able to articulate the message yourself to others who have questions.  You may not agree with everything or you might think you have a better way, but you should understand everything from the leader's perspective.  For example, most of us will tend to disregard a plan to double sales in a declining market that has bad assumptions and no supporting facts.  However, the same plan showing details of how to get to the goal (new markets, new customers, increase sales staff, etc.) will get more traction

  2. Belief in the Leader - You will follow a person who has displayed ethics and values that you believe in, and has a track record of getting results.  People want to put their fate in the hands of leaders who have a history of "doing the right thing", always behaving with honesty, integrity, and trust.  You will follow someone who is willing to listen to alternate ideas (even if they don't accept them) and address questions and criticism of the plan.  Plans set forth by a leader with a history of dishonesty and mistrust will be looked upon with skepticism and caution.  Plans set forth by a leader who has a track record of trust and results will generally be given the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Fear - Fear does work to generate followers in the short term.  However, it is only effective if you also believe in the message and in the leader.  The best example of this is in the military under fire.  Soldiers who understand the mission and believe in their leader will continue to follow orders and look to their leader for direction.  Soldiers who don't will revert to instinct, and chaos ensues.   The situation should honestly dictate the fear (we need to execute or we will go out of business), not the leader (follow this or I will fire you).  Leaders who fall back on fear as a motivator usually have not done the work to generate belief in the message or belief in themselves.  Those leaders don't have followers, they have short term compliance.
Companies generally hire intelligent, engaged people.  If you develop your skills in followership by forming a good relationship with your boss and truly understanding the plan, there are usually opportunities to succeed.  Without these skills, too many people become the smart but disenfranchised employee in the corner complaining about management (and who no one wants to work with).

Here are some tips on becoming a better follower:
  1. Practice articulating your leaders' plan.  Do you understand it?  Do you have gaps in your knowledge?  Do you believe that it can be accomplished?  Have all of your questions been answered?  If not, schedule a meeting to seek understanding and ask questions.  Use this meeting only to seek answers, not to criticize or propose changes.
  2. If you answered "yes" to the questions above and you think you have a better idea, ask your leader whether he/she is interested in a follow up session to hear your ideas.  If they are not accepted, move on. 
  3. Do you trust your leader?  If not, what has happened to break that trust?  Have you done your part to raise that issue person to person?  Trust issues can only be repaired when they are known and given time to heal.
(These conversations can be tricky.  You may want to consider practicing with a colleague or confidant before approaching your leaders.)

To summarize, true followership happens when you believe in the leader, believe in the message, look forward to the benefits of success, and fear the consequences of failure.  Good followership drives good results for your business, and often leads to leadership opportunities.    As we move into a tough year, we certainly need great leaders.   But more importantly we need great followers who are willing to put aside distraction and execute on challenging plans.


Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate