Are We Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

In past posts I discussed the various follower types. I ended by positing there is a possible mismatch between leadership styles and contributor follower type, but what evidence do we have for making that assertion? 

For starters, pre-pandemic attrition rates were on the increase. Employees, especially contributors, were leaving jobs for different (and supposedly better) jobs. The pandemic has reversed that trend somewhat, yet we still see a general inclination by contributors to seek different jobs. 

Although better pay is one of the factors given as to why people leave jobs, it’s rarely the main reason. Data collected from exit interviews tell a story of people wanting more challenging work, better working conditions, autonomy, a sense of belonging, opportunities to grow and be recognized for their accomplishments, and (wait for it…) making a contribution.

Let’s consider what happens when a high performing contributor announces they are leaving for a better opportunity. What is our first reaction? Offer them more money! After all that’s probably the reason they are leaving, right? Maybe. Or maybe it’s not the money, but that they aren’t getting the satisfaction they desire from their role. 

I once had a very bright and upwardly thinking engineer reporting to me who had expressed multiple times, they wanted to be included in more large scale projects. The engineer wanted to gain the  experience they knew they would need to be promoted.. I tried to get my leadership team to work with me on this, to no avail. It was really no surprise when the engineer tendered their resignation. My leadership team’s response? Make a counter offer. 

I discussed this with the employee and as I suspected, they weren’t leaving for the money. The opportunity in the new firm was to be a leader without a title. They would also get the opportunity to work on much larger projects. 

Thinking about the common philosophies of leading followers, I suspect we may have become stuck in non-productive paradigms. What is somewhat counter-intuitive is that we tend to forget about the intrinsic rewards when economic times are good because we are too busy to think about how our followers feel. 

When economic times are not good, we are focused on how to keep the organization alive and functioning. Problem is, knowledge workers, and especially contributors, are far less productive when they are living in a state of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) as their much-needed brain cycles for creativity are being consumed by worry. This is when well-intentioned yet misguided leaders create the most damage to the employee-company relationship.They inauthentically tell employees that if they just keep working all will be OK. The leaders are “barking up the wrong tree” (Reference Oyster .

Rewind to the engineer that resigned from my team. They went on to have a brilliant career at their new firm. I hired a bright engineer from a competitor at the same pay level, and set them up with projects and opportunities they were interested in.  I gave them complete autonomy with a promise to back them up no matter what. In under a year, the new engineer was performing at levels higher that I had seen with the previous engineer. Three years and several promotions later the newer engineer was asked to take on one of those once in a lifetime projects, where they excelled.

It was easy to see the difference in treating one employee as a follower and another as a contributor. For those of you reading this blog that are followers (reporting to someone else), the probable next question is how does one know if they are a follower (Laborer/Processor or Advocate) vs. a contributor. I’m glad you asked! Check out my next post to find out.

Contributor Type of Followers

Let’s start this by tackling the elephant in the room. The term “follower” has had a negative connotation for many years. How many times have you heard the expressions “be a LEADER, not a FOLLOWER” or “if you aren’t the lead dog, the view never changes”. Somewhere in the past we collectively decided followers were those who executed the orders of the leaders, without a thought on why. This likely happened during the age of manufacturing as the most primary pillar of economic prosperity.

If you look up the term follower in, you will find these top 4 definitions:

1.      a person or thing that follows.

2.      a person who follows another in regard to his or her ideas or belief; disciple or adherent.

3.      a person who imitates, copies, or takes as a model or ideal:

a.      “He was little more than a follower of current modes”.

4.      an attendant, servant, or retainer.

Other online dictionaries include devotee as a synonym. That brought me back to a couple of events in recent history such as Jonestown Guyana, and the Heaven’s Gate groups. For those of you unfamiliar, I’ll leave it to you to Google them. Then ask yourself if you can understand how the term follower could have a negative connotation.

And while that may be acceptable (and in some cases necessary) in some industries (the military, manufacturing and luxury yachting come to mind) the largest number of jobs today are in the knowledge work field. The contributor type of knowledge workers are those that use technology and information/data to create value for an organization’s customers. Value that those customers will pay for. Contributor knowledge workers mostly follow directives not instructions by leaders by using their skills and experiences to contribute to the higher goal.

For example, if Nike develops a new athletic shoe, the marketing department leader will assign followers to develop a marketing campaign. The leader doesn’t generally say “Step one, do research by next Tuesday, step two figure out the best approach for our core market by Friday, Step three, determine how we can appeal to all diversity groups by the end of next week….”. The leader would say “we need to attract the core markets we have today while enticing other segments” and “we need the new campaign ready for the Superbowl ads”. The leader is counting on the followers to make contributions to the project to deliver the higher goal without explicit direction. The followers might even take offense if the leader attempted to micro-manage the team.

So pause for a moment and consider the mismatch of the term follower in today’s knowledge-work environment. Should we consider leading these knowledge workers as contributors versus followers? If so, how?  I’ll talk about this in my next post.

Have We Neglected the Other Side of Leadership?

Lately, it seems like I’m hearing more about leadership techniques to keep employees, from now on we will be calling them followers, engaged and productive during the pandemic.  As we know, classic leadership training espouses useful techniques for leading.  So it comes as no real surprise that much of what I have been reading is based on the classic leadership techniques to which we are accustomed. 

The main concerns companies have in regards to their followers are keeping them motivated and inspired to work as well as making sure that work is productive. The classic leadership solutions to these concerns may include things like ensuring the followers have the right tools, that they have an understanding of their work load, or asking questions about their time management. These solutions may also include a more touchy feely approach like checking in on them frequently to see how they are holding up, connecting with them on their project, letting them know they should break for lunch, or my all-time favorite, letting them know how important their work is to the company.

But is that really enough?

What if our understanding about leading and engaging employees is outdated due to the impact of the pandemic? How do we effectively lead remote followers and keep them engaged during stressful times?

Some people, myself included, believe that leadership isn’t a constant set of concepts. Rather, they see leadership as a dynamic entity that changes with the natural shifts in the global economy, societal fluctuation, and the impact of events like a pandemic. In a very short timespan the global economy experienced a significant contraction that created a global fear, regardless of industry. It also shifted the daily norm for millions of office based workers to a home-based work environment. 

If your organization’s leadership discourse, that is, the overall leadership style, relies on inspiring and motivating followers in an eyeball to eyeball approach, your leaders will have to adapt. Yet, they haven’t and I see so many managers struggle with how best to manage and lead when the workforce is remote. After all, Zoom-tinis and virtual pizza can only go so far. 

It becomes essential (or prudent) to ask, given this environment, are we potentially causing more harm than good by staying with the old standard leadership style?

Those with long term experience in leadership often recognize themselves as students of leadership rather than experts. I have been pondering research demonstrating the impact of leadership training for both leaders AND followers on the level of employee engagement and productivity. (Daria & Hannes 2018) This got me thinking about my experiences with the leaders I have worked for or who have had influence over my career as well as the employees for which I have been responsible. Well, I rarely worked in the same office as my supervisor, and every team that I was responsible for was remote and in my thinking several important factors became clear:

1) The leader recognized that there was an individual relationship with each follower.

2) Trust was established early in the leader-follower relationship, also known as a “dyad”.

3) Followers were treated with respect and authentic caring.

4) Followers that played a significant role in the leader-follower dyad were more engaged and productive as they more likely to remain stable in stressful situations. In fact, the followers that made a contribution to the relationship were far more likely to be invested in the organization’s success.

That last point, however, is one that I rarely see in leadership literature. Through my own experience and education, I posit our bias about improving only the leaders skills causing those successful results may be missing one of the most important aspects in improving engagement and performance: the followers.  This may be why some remarkable research is starting regarding the concept of “followership” based on concepts similar to those that define leadership. 

All of this leads to one thought provoking question: should we spend time and dollars to ensure that followers in an organization have the skills necessary to fully participate in the Leader-Follower dyad? How do we get followers to contribute? My own experience has shown me that even a portion of the followers of an organization having the skills to follow within a partnership approach, results in an increased level of engagement and productivity.

So how do we get there? That is what I will be investigating through this blog.

Follower Types

One of the key neglected aspects of leadership is consideration for the different types of followers. Much of leadership literature and commercially available leadership training is focused on improving the skills of the leader as the cure all for productivity, engagement, and retention. While leadership training is often oriented toward skill development for leaders in specific industries, the training neglects the follower role entirely. It’s as though leaders are mythical creatures that can magically get followers to do the organization’s bidding simply by applying taught leadership skills. The reality I have experienced is much different than that supposition.

Having led many different types of teams over more than 30 years, I have experienced different types of knowledge workers as followers.

The most common type is laborer/processor. Do not get that confused with laborers that do primarily manual labor, although labor can be part of the role, A laborer/processor generally performs repetitive tasks with the use of technology to provide a level of service to the end customer. These types of followers usually have some form of skill, that acts as a lens, through which data and information are processed to serve the end customer. Examples of the laborer/processor follower type are installation/repair personnel for services such as Internet/telephone/TV service companies, data center management personnel, etc. 

The second type of knowledge worker, advocates, perform roles that support the end customer’s ongoing use of the company’s products/services. These types of followers have a goal to help the company’s existing customer derive value from the product or service and retain (and sometimes upsell) the customer. While the Advocate follower type is similar in function to Laborer/processor, Advocates generally have more latitude to solve a problem for a customer through adjusting terms of service, creating exceptions to company processes, or developing creative solutions to delight the customer. Examples of Advocate type of followers include call center and help desk staff that ensure customer satisfaction.

The third type of follower is the contributor. Contributors are different from laborer/processors and Advocates in that they are using data/information and technology along with specialized skills to create revenue generating or protecting value for the end customer. Contributors differ from the other types of followers in that they are given directives and deadlines on which they must deliver the value. While the other two types of followers engage the customer or solve problems for them using specific organization processes and protocols, contributors create something that will benefit the end customer. Examples of Contributors are Programmers, Website designers, Sales people, and Product managers.

So why is it important to identify follower types? As you may imagine, each follower type is unique in their needs and wants. While there are other texts that address the care, feeding, and leadership of laborers/processors and advocates, contributors have been largely ignored, or worse yet, grouped in with the other two types.  Why is that important? We will cover that in the next post.