Do you have what it takes to be an active follower?

At one point in the Disney animated film Peter Pan  the Lost Boys sing

 Following the leader, the leader, the leader.  We’re following the leader wherever he may go. Tee dum, tee dee, A teedle ee do tee day, Tee dum, tee dee. It’s part of the game we play.

Did you ever wonder if there are rules for following the leader?  In the game of business is there opportunity for a differentiated playbook when you are follower? Or, should you just ‘keep your head down and do as you are told?’

I was curious about this so I conducted a little research study.  I interviewed fourteen senior leaders from across the globe. My study group was a mix of gender and nationality and all were between the ages of 38 and 50. They are from different companies but all part of what one would call the ‘technology’ industry. All are running significant organizations in their own right but are not the CEO.  They are what is commonly referred to as an L1 (direct report to the CEO) or L2 leader (they report to a leader who reports to the CEO).  So, in their role they need to both lead and follow.

My methodology was straight forward. I asked one question: ‘How should an executive leader be an active follower?’  Their insights are instructive, not only for technology companies and worth sharing.

Here is what they said:

  1. Be in sync with the company’s strategy. An executive leader should act in sync with the company’s strategy. The most critical aspect for an organization or enterprise is alignment and buy-in of the strategy. There should be a consistent plan and set of goals.  Once it is debated and put into motion, all leaders must be on the same page with a consistent execution plan.  Leaders must be ready to follow the CEO or Board, even if they were initially dissenting, for any real chance of success.  They must show the way for the rest of the organization.  If they are unwilling or unable to follow in that situation, they should leave.
  2. Lead with 100% conviction. To be an effective leader who is an active follower you need to have 100% conviction that the strategy is the right course of action. Even when it hurts their own interest. While the course of action is being discussed they should be extremely engaged, open, questioning and listening and challenging the status quo when needed. It takes authenticity, courage and vulnerability. But once the decision is made there is no opting out. If not 100% convinced they should step aside. Going along but ‘mentally’ opting out is not an option if the team is going to be successful.
  3. Challenge in a healthy way. An active follower challenges in a healthy way using data-driven analysis and dialogue.  He or she should help keep the CEO on his/her toes. Virtually all of this group underscored the importance of active listening and healthy debate.
  4. Actively follow the data. With the speed at which markets are changing the group highlighted the importance of data. Their recommendation is to actively follow the industry trends and technology developments. They emphasized the importance of listening to, and collecting valid data on, what customers, employees and partners have to say in terms of their issues and needs for the business.
  5. Be self-aware of your position in the team’s dynamics. Too often we get so focused on the deliverables for our own team that we forget that we are also accountable to the team we sit on. Get involved in helping your peers achieve their goals for the organization, perhaps through driving special projects and initiatives. Remember, there are two teams that need to know you ‘have their back’, the team you lead and the team you are a member of.
  6. Operate with candor and don’t whine. If your business will succeed it is vital to have the best information and well thought through perspectives upon which to base decisions. There is no room for obfuscation or misrepresentation.  Insist on this for both yourself and your peers.  Also, don’t whine.  It’s sad to see how many executives resort to whining and whinging when things don’t go the way they would like.  Nobody said leadership would be easy, and, at the executive level – there is no room for crying.
  7. Remember, nobody has all the answers. My interviewees were very clear on being open and adaptable. In addition to being open to change and evolution, they emphasized the importance of taking the ideas of the team (the one you lead or the one you sit on) and harnessing that collective brain power to evolve the existing strategies, institutions and processes to better compete in the market.

You can’t be the leader all the time. You also have to be a follower and a team member. While my research was from a small sample group, I found their suggestions practical and succinct. Hopefully it will give you some ideas for your own playbook on how to be an active follower. What have you seen that makes someone an effective active follower?

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of FlickrCC and Lucky Lynda.

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