Brokerage Ops the July/August 2011 issue

Follow the Leader

It’s the Vision Thing: get out of the way so your staff can follow you.
Posted on July 1, 2011

Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and genders. They can be positive motivators that move the organization forward, neutral figureheads that maintain the status quo, or negative forces that drive the firm into the ground. But they all have one thing in common: followers. Followers that many times will mirror the expectations and style of their leader and run the gamut from subordinate, unthinking lap dogs to dynamic, entrepreneurial leaders in their own right.

As a manager or executive in your firm—whatever your title and wherever you fall in the pecking order—wouldn’t you rather have followers that think for themselves, initiate positive change, challenge the status quo, and inspire and influence others? If not, then the next paragraphs will be lost on you. If so, keep reading to learn some basic strategies to ensure that those following you don’t just hitch a ride on your coattails, but are energized and eager to play a key role in moving your firm into the future.

Take a look at yourself first to understand what behavioral and performance expectations you are setting for your followers. For example, if you’re mired in historical or cognitive bias, then you’ll teach your followers that the old ways are the best ways. Historical bias simply means that you value and prefer the way things have always been done or the way things are currently being done. Cognitive bias means that you’ve made up your mind how you want things to be and how you want others to do things and you’re not open to change or new ideas. Both types of bias limit not just your own creativity, innovation and initiative, but practically guarantee that your staff won’t think outside of the box or catch the entrepreneurial bug. Just the opposite, they’ll soon realize that what you value—and probably what you reward—is some variation on an old and comfortable theme. And they’ll settle into a groove. Don’t get me wrong. They will continue to be productive, continue to work hard, and continue the same ole, same ole. If that’s what you want—great. But if you want more for both you and your organization, you’ll need to pull yourself out of the quicksand of “that’s how we’ve always done it” and “we tried that before and it didn’t work” and instead start asking “how can we do things better?” and “what changes do we need to make now to better prepare for the future?”

Clarify expectations, especially if your expectations are changing. If you’re implementing a change in the organization’s mission, direction or goals, you must let your staff know what that means to them and what that means in terms of how they operate. Assuming they’ll see you taking an unexpected turn in the road and will be able to follow you is a grave error. Just as you carefully consider where you’re headed, you must carefully plan your communication to ensure that your followers will not just end up in the same place, but will arrive energized and eager to get to work. One way to begin a communication plan is to brief those who report directly to you. Then elicit questions, encourage them to challenge the new direction, consider their input and make necessary adjustments to your plan. Loop them back in and enlist their help to spread the word to staff through their own staff meetings, one-on-ones with key players or as an internal panel of experts and proponents of the plan in an all-staff  meeting. When communicating, make sure you let everyone know why you’re changing direction, how it will benefit the firm and—more importantly to adults—what’s in it for them personally (and how you’re going to help them in terms of resources, training or other support).

Get out of their way once you’ve clearly communicated your expectations, the desired results and provided training and resources. Step back and let them get it done without hovering over them, requiring time-consuming and unnecessary reporting, and overly specific directions on how to go about their jobs. Obviously, you’ll want to be observant, check in at logical intervals, and keep in touch with your key managers to answer questions or provide guidance, but otherwise, let those working on the project self-direct as much as possible. Encourage them to be creative, to piggy-back innovations on the existing plan, and to initiate conversations with others to brainstorm and share resources.

It’s sometimes hard for those who are accountable for a department, branch office or the entire organization to remember that a leader’s role is not to do. And a leader’s role is not to tell others what to do and how to do it. A leader’s role is to have a vision, communicate the expectations, encourage innovation and provide the necessary resources. And most importantly, your role as a leader is to get out of the way so that your capable staff can get the job done, even as they follow your lead.

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