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Followership: A Key Competence to Develop at the Start of Your Career – Whiteboard Wednesday

Transcript – Followership: A Key Competence to Develop at the Start of Your Career – Whiteboard Wednesday

I’m John Watkins, the Director of Employability at the University of Law, and I’ve been invited to give this Whiteboard Wednesday talk, looking at the concept of followership.

Followership perhaps is the inverse of leadership, a much more commonly used word. But, as you can see from the headline behind you, followership’s really important.

Evidence has shown that the contributions made by followers result in 90% of the success in organizational outcomes, and therefore it’s really important.

There are different types of followers, and this is relevant for you if you’re starting out in your career. And indeed, if you are partway through your career, it never really has a period where it’s not relevant. So, the different types of followers, see if you recognize any descriptions here. We have sheep. They’re predictable, they lack initiative, they need to be guided and steered in the right direction.

So, in terms of employees, they are the sort of individuals who don’t do any harm to anybody, they work their 9:00 to 5:00 hours or thereabouts, but they perhaps don’t add that extra value that really makes a difference in the workplace. Following on from sheep, you have yes people, a nice description that perhaps is used in common parlance for enthusiastic people.

You can’t deny the positivity but, again, there’s not really much that comes from them above and beyond their willingness to take instruction. They do need guidance and support. In the middle of this category we have risk-averse individuals, often people who have been very capable in the past and still could be in the future but, for one reason or another, have just decided to take stock and take things a little bit easy.

They’re not prepared to take those risks that they were previously. And, in a long career, believe me, it’s difficult to work at 100% all of the time. Sometimes you do need to just take stock and find a second wind, so to speak, and therefore this is not a bad category to be in, but one that sometimes people find themselves during their career needing some re-energizing at that point. The final two categories start off with the disengaged.

There are people in the workplace who unfortunately find things are not working out for them. There could be a multitude of reasons, and yet in terms of the followership, the way that they respond to their leaders is a negative one. They’ve got talent, they’ve got energy, they’ve got capability, but all of that is focused negatively. They fight the leadership, they criticize. They come up with problems but never solutions.

They’re difficult people to work with, and often don’t find great satisfaction themselves. And yet, it does happen across many workplaces.

And so, you reach the Holy Grail, the area where people looking at this should be thinking, “I’m not any of those previous categories, show me the one I am.” Well, hopefully, it’s the effective follower, the one that every firm organization wants to have in their team, somebody who is proactive, uses their initiative, has an extra sense of drive and ambition and determination, delivers on what they’re going to say, doesn’t over-promise but makes sure that, what they say they’re going to do, they do deliver and deliver well.

They’re well-known, they’re proactive networkers. They’re very positive characters, and the sort of people that really add value to an organization.

So we pause, and we ask ourselves, “Well, which one of these are you?” And the answer’s not straightforward, we don’t fall into these categories. These move with the times, they are affected by the people we work with, the moods that we’re in, our personal circumstances from time to time.

I take myself as an example. I can probably say that I have occupied many of these categories, sometimes within a very short space of time. A Friday afternoon, particularly a warm Friday afternoon with the end of the week looming, I would certainly want to keep my head down on occasion and hope that that person heading in my direction hasn’t got a difficult problem for me to deal with. So, a bit of sheep-like behavior, just make sure that you try and stay clear of any trouble towards the end of the week.

And yes people, well, I’ve been in meetings with some senior people, and I’ve been quite significant in terms of the contribution being made where, actually, the answer to the question in most people’s eyes is no, and yet as you go around the room, everybody concedes and says, “Yes.” Why do they do that? Well, they do that because the fear of saying “no” means you stand out, have to explain yourself.

You might have to do something to follow-up as a result of your answer being different to somebody else’s. And so, for that quiet life, sometimes just to get on with the next thing, perhaps you might anticipate that saying “no” isn’t really going to have any effect anyway. You just put your hand up and say, “Yes.” And so the thing gets carried, and nobody’s particularly satisfied. The risk-averse individual as well, there are certainly times where I’ve taken stock and thought, “Am I getting full job satisfaction here?”

Now, there’s different ways of responding to that and, in most cases, careers, people will try and think, “Actually, how can I re-energize?How can I perhaps take on a new project, find myself on a different team, talk to my boss about opportunities, rather than remaining in a state where perhaps I’m not giving as much as I can give?” I think I’ve largely stayed away from the disengaged category, but I’ve certainly seen other people both writing and sometimes sending emails with the odd capital letter and exclamation mark attached, which perhaps should have been saved for another day or, indeed, deleted altogether.

Those moments of people showing their hand and being disillusioned and disengaged can be very disruptive to a workplace, and poison the atmosphere, turn the culture into one that isn’t all that enjoyable. And hopefully, on the effective side, yes, day in and day out, trying to be as good and as strong as possible. And certainly in the recruitment decisions that I make, or the advice that I might give to students in my role as the Director of Employability, it’s very much saying that a recruiter is looking for people who sit permanently in that effective follower category.

If recruitment processes are done correctly, you should find that people start on day one very much living in that category, and trying to deliver on that front. And yet, as time goes on, will they stay there permanently? Well, if you do, and you’re able to deliver that sort of performance, then you’re likely to get promoted, people are likely to want you in their team, people are likely to talk about you in positive language.

Leaders, a subject perhaps for another time, often get the followers they deserve. It’s great trying to be an effective follower, but if you have a leader who makes that difficult for you it can be easier to sit in one of the other categories. As you reflect upon this Whiteboard Wednesday, perhaps one of the things you could do as situations arise which are a little bit more complicated or difficult, than usual, just stop and pause, and say, “In these circumstances, what would an effective follower do?”

And if you can work out the solution to that, which is usually a positive, constructive, forward-looking solution, then you’re going to be a high-value asset in any organization you work for.

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Followership: A Key Competence to Develop at the Start of Your Career