Saturday, December 29, 2012


Everyone promotes leadership. Companies encourage and even pay for leadership training. Everyone praises and rewards the great "leader", but who actually put Part A into Slot B and delivered the product? The workers did. Not the leaders, the followers.

As the nature of work changes from assembly line to knowledge-based the type of worker changes also. This change in the work and in the worker demand changes in how management and workers interact.

Leadership training attempts to teach managers the actions they should take to interest or engage single individuals or teams of individuals in a goal or process leading to the desired result. Leadership training also teaches how to make group dynamics a supporting element in achieving that result.

OK; you knew all of that, just not in those words. What's the point?

The point is that to be a leader you must have followers. People who, consciously or unconsciously, have agreed to let you make the critical decisions and then follow those decisions by performing the steps necessary to achieve the desired goal.

We've all seen examples of efforts that were less successful than they might have been or were outright failures because of team members who didn't fully support the leader. The tendency is to blame the leader. He/she didn't motivate or engage (or whatever the current buzz word is) the team. But, maybe the team member(s) couldn't or wouldn't follow!

My most recent example occurred while managing a cross-functional project team. The customer contracted the project management to the consulting firm I worked for. As the PM for the consulting firm, I had two direct employees, that is, they worked for the same consulting firm that I did and they reported to me. The other team members were five Project Managers for and/or owners of other consulting firms. Those other consultants were experts in some aspect of the overall project and were to supply the skills and support necessary from their specialties to complete the project.

Each consultant (except for my directs, who worked for the same consulting firm I worked for) approached the project meetings as if they were the Project Manager for the total project and not just their deliverables. Some of them believed they and their company should have been hired to manage the total project. Most just never learned to follow. The problem with team members not meeting goals and working at cross-purposes was a real challenge to the successful completion of the project. We did it, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be.

Teams are really about the division of labor. Most people talk about the concept of the division of labor, but never really understand that it means different things to people at different levels within the organization.

To a worker, division of labor means:
            I do this part of the work, others do something (I may not know what) the product comes out the end and I get paid.

To a bad manager, division of labor means:
            You do this part, you, you, and you do those other parts, product comes out the end, and I look good.

To a leader, division of labor means:
            You do this part, you, you, and you do other parts, I get the obstacles out of your way, the product comes out the end and we all succeed.

Any of the three approaches could work in a factory where the division of labor was obvious and everyone could see and understand the tasks needed to build the product. Even in a complex manufacturing environment the average worker could at least understand the workflow within his or her own area and see how their personal contribution helped.

As the nature of work changes from manufacturing to thought based work the bad manager's approach becomes less and less effective. The leader now has to find a way to make sure that the workers understand their part of the process and how their work supports the entire project or deliverable. All this in an environment where very few of the participants can see the entire process and where team members may be in different time zones or even on different continents, speaking different languages.

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, "Asking ‘who ought to be the boss’ is like asking who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?  Obviously; the man who can sing tenor."  At some point the people doing the work or managing sub-sections of the effort must agree on who "can sing tenor"! The old style boss saying "Because I told you too." no longer works.

Most businesses use a hierarchical model as illustrated in the following organizational chart. In the traditional model, people follow because that's their place in the "chain of command".

 Even in a "horizontal organizations" the structure is the same. The person who evaluates you or signs your time card is “above” you and people you evaluate or sign the time cards for are below you. People try to satisfy their customer and their customer is always the person who pays them. My customer is the person who signs my time card and writes my evaluation.

In the past, workers were considered as non-skilled, skilled, professional, and management. As the nature of work changes and requires higher education, the workers are less likely to fit the non-skilled and skilled class and much more likely fit the professional and management class. I use the word class because in the past, there were sharp divisions between workers (unskilled and skilled), professionals, and managers.

In the new economy, the work demands much more highly educated workers and those workers are likely to understand the complete scope of the work and many of the other job skills used to complete the work. This creates a situation where the worker is testing the leader’s instructions against his or her own knowledge and experience. In most knowledge-based work the person doing the work has the education and experience to understand the effect of their work on the rest of the organization and the organization's effect on their work.

Because of the complex nature of knowledge-based work, the worker may have a significantly deeper understanding of the details of the work they are performing than their manager. The higher a manager is within an organization, the less likely they are to maintain any real expertise in all of the tasks that create the product or deliverable. The manager is relying on the team as a group or on a single team expert for that level of understanding in any single area.

When the team members are managers in their own right, turf wars and in some cases fights for outright control of the project can occur. Some those fights may happen because the team member truly believes that the decision being made by the team or team leader is wrong. Some times it's just a fight for personal advancement. Whatever the reason, the team member has either never been taught to follow or never accepted that, sometimes, it's part of their job to follow.

Followership consists of giving your boss the best of your thinking on every subject and then executing her decisions with your full support. Part of leadership is accepting your team member’s advice and not giving directions that conflict with that advice.

Of course, sometimes the advice is $10,000 and the budget is $5,000 and good leadership demands a clear explanation to the team. When this happens, the team may not be able to deliver and the project may not be viable. Thankfully, obstacles like that will be rare, since that’s caused by a poor cost analysis during the planning phase.

Followership is like being a passenger in an automobile. You accept that someone else is driving and agree not to grab the steering wheel. As passengers, we do get to advise the driver about a faster route and dangers we see, but we trust the driver to make the right decisions.

All right, you get it but how do you teach and practice followership? In four easy steps!

  1. Include the people who actually have to do the work in developing clearly stated goals. Getting willing participants means giving ownership of the ideas and goals to each team member. Nothing helps you develop a sense of ownership like deciding the goal and your team members feel the same way. As a passenger, you won't even get into a car unless you’re sure that it's going where you want to go.

  1. Show that you believe in your team members by listing to and following their advice. When you don't, you OWE the team, or at least that member, an explanation. Hold that image of the passengers in a car in you thoughts. How many times would you ride with someone if they don't get you where you want to go or scare you in the process? Why should you expect your team to feel any differently than you do?

  1. Give the same support to your team that you want from your boss. Give the same support to your boss that you want from your team. It's just that simple - Why would you support someone who doesn't support you? This doesn't mean that you can't cut a problem team member. Cutting nonproductive members is good for the team. The people doing the work know who isn’t pulling their weight and resent carrying non-productive team members. Just like teenagers joy riding, everyone puts in for gas. Nobody rides for free!

  1. Failure is yours but success belongs to the team. You don't really work very hard for someone who blames you for failure but claims all the credit for success. Neither will your team. Maybe I'm straining the travel analogy, but the driver, the navigator and the people sitting in the back of the car all get to the destination at the same time. When you drive alone, you can say, “I arrived”. When you have a car full, you can only say “We arrived”.

OK, so far we’ve looked at the things a leader has to do to but what about those supposed followers? What should they be doing to support the team?

First and foremost each and every team member must accept that they are followers. Going back to that Henry Ford quote – each team member has to make a conscious decision that the team leader “can sing tenor”! Trying to wrest control from the team leader destroys the team and ensure that the project will fail. Just as the passengers agree not to try and fight the driver for control, team members must follow the directions of the team leader.

Second, the team members must agree to support each other. Team members have to accept that they are one of the people in the car and that all the passengers will get there at the same time. Trying to make yourself the hero will only distract from getting the project completed on time and on budget.

Practicing these two simple principals is much easier when you are an individual contributor. Much harder to subordinate yourself when you are a team leader in your own right. Picture a team consisting of a team of programmers, marketing people, and teachers developing training software. The programmers may be pushing for a less complex product, the marketing folks for a more full featured product while the teachers want a snazzy user interface.

At some point each of these competing requirements may come into conflict. By fighting for control so they can get their favorite features a single team member may sacrifice the entire project for parochial interests. While the team leader should explain why the compromises are necessary, at some point the followers must accept that the team leader has the best interest of the entire project in mind and is weighing the trade-offs and making decisions that keep the project on track and with in budget.

1 comment:

Bryan Neva said...

I recently had an experience where I was elected the president of a voluntary corporate topical discussion group that met monthly. On my first meeting as president I listened in stunned silence as the "discussion" degenerated into total chaos. There were people talking over one another and too many side discussions going on. After 30 minutes of this, I tried to bring some order to the meeting by telling the group of about 20 young engineers (that were young enough to be my children), "Can we just have one person talk at a time?" (It’s just basic meeting edict.) Well my simple suggestion went over like a lead balloon as the discussion turned into “why that was a stupid idea.” After the disastrous meeting I promptly walked back to my desk and resigned as their president. They obviously hadn’t learned basic courtesy or followership and continuing as their leader would have been an exercise in futility.