how do I build a team of inspired followers?

How to Build a Team of Inspired Followers

How DO YOU build a team of inspired followers?

Early in my career, I had a GREAT boss, Gary, who had hand-selected and developed a team of rock star leaders. It’s arguably the best corporate team I’ve ever worked on. I’m not sure how he pulled this off, but nearly every member of the team was a  Box 9 succession planning candidate. He was all about developing our leadership and visioning skills, and spent many hours with us debriefing our strategies and making plans.

At one point he told us our team was “an experiment.” He claimed he “was in cahoots with HR” (you’ve got to add his deep Southern accent when you say this for full effect) to build an “All-Star Team” and then challenge them to truly collaborate and see what was possible.

Gary tragically passed away years ago, so I can’t verify whether the “experiment” was real. But whatever he did worked. It was not without turmoil, but at the end of the day, we developed a deep respect for one another, blew away results, most of us ended up in senior-level roles in a few years.

AND THEN: He Challenged Us to Be Inspired Followers

I’ll never forget the day the union went on strike. Gary pulled his cahoot experiment team into a conference room and warned us:

Here’s the deal. Each of you are going to spend the foreseeable future doing union jobs, climbing poles, driving forklifts, answering phones. Sometimes these situations can become dangerous–the union is not happy. There are a lot of smart people who have been working for months on how we should respond to this. We can’t explain it all.  So for now, I don’t want you to be leaders. Until this strike is over,  we don’t need your vision, we need you to step up and be the very best inspired followers you can be.

You can learn a lot about leadership when you concentrate on improving your following skills.

My friend, a retired Baltimore City Battalion chief goes to a similar place whenever we talk about growing leaders.

Karin, yes, we need great leaders. But when the building is on fire or the drug raid is underway, you don’t need 12 great leaders. You need one solid leader and 11 highly skilled followers executing the plan.

Five Critical Follower Behaviors to Train, Develop and Encourage Inspired Followers

Following is an undervalued competency. We seldom train or recruit for it. 

And yet, there is huge ROI in training key following and collaboration skills.

If you’re an individual contributor looking to rock your role, or you’re a manager working to get your A team to A+, work to build and reinforce these five critical behaviors.

  1. Holding Tough Conversations: Oh, it’s hard to have a tough conversation when you’re the boss, but exponentially harder when you have no power. Equip your team with the same skills you develop in your managers for giving and receiving effective feedback. I.N.S.P.I.R.E. great communication up, down and sideways.
  2. Thinking Critically: The last thing you want your followers doing is following your stupid mistakes. Train your team how to evaluate nuanced circumstances, ask the right questions, and make the right call.
  3. Managing Time:  Your team is a whirlwind of urgent requests from you, from your customers, and a bunch of crap you may not even fully understand. Help them identify the MIT (Most Important Thing) priorities and behaviors and build a system for managing their day.
  4. Connecting What to Why: We teach this to leaders all the time. But it works even better when you can get the whole team thinking this way. Why are we asking our customers to do this? Why am I performing this task this way? Why are we doing this thing no wants to do? Building a deeper connection between what your team is doing it to the deeper why.
  5. Building Trusted Peer Relationships: In a stack-ranked world, with limited resources creating trusted peer relationships is a fine art. Your team needs tools and practice–and support from you to reach out and build relationships even with the most frustrating folks in other departments.

This year, what will you do to build followership competence on your team?

How To Be A Great Follower

If your house is on fire, you want to know there’s someone calling the shots. More importantly, you pray for a team of strong, skilled, and courageous followers. My husband’s a firefighter, he knows the life and death importance of following well.

My friend, a Battalion chief leading the City’s firefighters, shares great stories of hiring for, and developing, great followers. Sure, he has a succession plan and builds leadership at every level.

But when the city’s burning, the character and skills of the followers are just as vital. Great leaders nurture followership. Great leaders know how and when to follow.

6 Ways To Be a Better Follower

Great leaders grow other leaders. They also nurture followership. As I look back over the years to the best followers on my teams, 6 characteristics stand out.

F – Focus

Focused energy. Passionate drive. Great followers focus on results and outcomes. They care deeply about their craft. They focus on the details and doing the best work possible.

O – Open to feedback and new ideas

Great followers have open hearts and minds. They want to improve and seek out feedback. They are open to people, change, and new ideas.

L – Loyal

Strong followers are loyal to the cause and to the team. They rise above drama and gossip and give folks the benefit of the doubt. They offer feedback from a place of deep concern. They’ll take one for the team.

L – Learning

Learning is second nature for great followers. They learn from experience, failure and success, introspection, and other people. They read books and seek out mentors. Learning is exciting and fun.

O – Offer Solutions and take initiative

Great followers care and solve problems. They turn expertise into creative solutions. They speak up and tell the truth.

W – Work as “We”

Great followers work well with others. They share best practices, workload, credit and feedback. They have each other’s backs.

Following the Leader? Stop, Notice How It Makes You Feel

There is much we can learn from following. We all find ourselves in positions to follow both great and horrible leaders from time to time. It helps to stop and really pay attention to how we feel during the process.

Pay Attention to Emotions

As leaders, we lead and follow with much intensity. Because we care, the range of emotions is powerful. When we are deeply invested, the wins are that much sweeter. At the same time, disappointments and frustrations can run deep as well. Paying attention to the emotions we experience as followers can help us become more empathetic leaders.

A Lesson from the Mat

I have a yoga instructor who will have us hold a very intense pose, and then say, “Stop. Notice how that makes you feel.” And then, we will go on to a very relaxing pose, and then the same request, “Stop, notice how that makes you feel.” This is useful in teaching us to reflect on the sensations in our bodies and minds–and their causes.

Transferable Feelings

I remember the first time I received some really significant recognition at work. The music blared, the spotlight shown on me. I was escorted onto the stage in front of thousands. Pictures were snapped with top brass… the adrenaline rush was fantastic. As I returned to my seat, my boss pulled me aside and got very serious:

“Never forget how that made you feel. Someday you will be in a decision-making role, and someone will ask you if the investment in these recognition programs is worth it. Today you have your answer.”

He was right. I am often in that decision-making role. I have my answer.

Taking the time to notice how we feel when we are followers, can inform our decisions as leaders. And we are always following someone, no matter whom we are leading.

How do we feel when…

  • someone takes the time to give us really candid feedback?
  • our risk-taking is supported?
  • someone makes a big investment in our careers?
  • someone takes credit for our work?
  • we really screw up?
  • we work really long hours and someone notices?
  • … and no one does?
  • we are talked to with dignity and respect?
  • … or we are not?

It is hard to step back and embrace the learning, particularly when emotions are high. And yet, that may be our biggest opportunity to learn.