The Art of Following – Being open about what you want

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I’ve written two posts about following in the hope of redressing the balance on LinkedIn that’s currently vastly in favour of tips on leadership. Followers make up the majority of our human population and the professional population LinkedIn addresses, though sometimes in some contexts we lead and in others we follow.

The Art of Following

The Art of Following – Obedience

I’ve suggested that in following we don’t always have to do what we’re told. Even in the military, and even in war, there are limits to obedience. But how we deal with uncongenial demands is important. A good follower criticises constructively, but is capable of compromise and compliance when led reasonably and openly. Sulking, sullen non-compliance is an unwise strategy. Better, if compliance is impossible, to get out of the situation entirely.

I’ve led two companies for more than twenty years – LLP Group, a regional consultancy and software reseller in Central and Eastern Europe, and systems@work, a software author specialising in professional services and expense management systems. If there is one thing I’ve learned about management it is that there aren’t any failsafe formulas.

I’ve worked extensively for international companies as a consultant and I’ve been impressed by how methodical they are in what they do – in marketing, finance, HR, and operations. When they arrived in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s they brought their procedures and manuals with them. And to some extent these work, but they must always be interpreted rather than blindly followed. Standard procedures must be adapted to local contexts and cultures.

If there is one area where I’ve always seen procedures fail it is in the are of motivation. What works in Manhattan doesn’t always work in Moscow.

motivation

In my experience you must understand each of your followers individually if you’re to motivate them well. Some staff need constant attention and reassurance, even, in some cases the kind of micro-management that others abhor. Some want to belong to a well defined team, whether it’s the whole of or only part of a company, and love team-building activities, and other kinds of company jolly. Others want to be left alone and have no interest in the ‘group’. Some need public recognition, through a job title, others want more money. Some must be allowed to be creative, others just want to do what they’re told. The variations are as many as there are human beings in the world.

Leaders must be sensitive and percipient. Followers must be open both about what they want and what they don’t want. A good follower can help his or her leader by saying or showing what he or she needs. Nothing is worse than hidden resentment. Resentments so often end with terminal crises.

Some years ago I visited one of our subsidiaries and spoke to everyone in the company. There was a feeling that morale was low and I wanted to understand what was wrong. What I found was that our employees didn’t feel appreciated, and that in many cases rewards had been promised but not delivered – a car, a salary rise, a more generous bonus, a promotion. But everyone wanted something different.

If you’re a follower, think about what you want, and make it clear. Don’t demand. Ask nicely! And if something has been promised to you and not delivered, remind your leader gently. He or she may, albeit unforgivably, have simply forgotten.

Delegation – My Way or the Highway!

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Some months ago I attended a meeting designed to bring business men and women and potential business coaches together. Each of us could talk about areas where we thought we might need guidance. One man, who’s successfully run his own business for more than 15 years, bewailed the fact that he could never find ‘good people’. He was still searching for a successor, someone who might, one day, run the business on his behalf, and to whom, in the meantime, as he trained him up, he could delegate important day-to-day decisions.

Of course he was kidding himself, as many of us could see. The problem, and I could tell that  everyone was thinking it, was that he couldn’t let go. He couldn’t delegate.

‘They never work out,’ he said. ‘Either they leave or I end up firing them. What is it about this country?’

To my mind Czechia (as we’re now supposed to call the Czech Republic) isn’t exceptional. It’s a small country, but there are plenty of pragmatic young men and women ready to learn and lead.

‘Might it be something to do with you?’ I asked, as tactfully as I could. ‘Are you sure you’re delegating properly? It mightn’t actually be a recruitment issue, you know. It could be a management issue.’

I don’t think he liked the drift of my question. But that, too, was symptomatic of the issue. And his wasn’t the only big ego in the room. One by one, everyone moaned about something or other, but no one was really interested in anyone else’s opinion.

myway

Delegation isn’t easy, especially if you run your own business and you’ve got used to having things your way and doing things your way. You come to believe, like an absolute monarch, in the divine rightness of the entrepreneur. Your way is the only way. No one else can possibly get it right.

But if you can’t delegate then your business won’t grow. And you won’t ever be able to sell it, because it won’t work without you. You’re likely to be its sole source of value if you can’t assemble a competent and independent management team around you. It’s no good saying that you can’t find the right people, or that the right people won’t stay. Rather, you’ve got to find the right way of delegating so that your company acquires a life that isn’t dependent on you, and attracts staff who are happy to stay.

The first mistake we all make with delegation is to believe that when we delegate we’re simply doing things by proxy. We think we can double our capacity simply by making another person an extension of ourselves. We want a clone, programmed with the knowledge we have, to react in the ways we react.

This is quite impossible, of course. No one is like us. In fact, no one is like anyone. And we’re foolish to think it’s fun to be a clone. We micro manage our staff from a distance castigating them for not doing things exactly the way we would do them. They’re not even ‘learning from their mistakes’ because nothing they do is really them. No wonder they hesitate to make decisions and call us for our advice about the most trivial things, every hour of every day, and exasperate us further. In the end we find we haven’t really doubled our capacity. Our protégées usually fail to meet our expectations, or we fail to meet theirs as employers. We fire them or they leave.

After we’ve made too many expensive mistakes of this kind, we try to delegate in a slightly different way. We stop the micro management and we pretend that we’ve delegated full decision-making responsibility and that we won’t interfere in the day-to-day.

‘Don’t call me,’ we say. ‘You’ll know what to do. Trust your own judgement. And if you make mistakes, you’ll learn from them.’

Only, of course, we don’t actually trust their judgement and we’re usually working with a very personal (our own) definition of what constitutes a mistake.

I once tried this form of delegation during the early years of my company (LLP Group), leaving for two weeks’ holiday in Zimbabwe, out of sight, beyond telephone contact, with the lions, the giraffes and the elephants, on safari. And when I came home I made a long list of everything that my colleagues had done ‘wrong’.

Real delegation goes further than the training of clones. It goes beyond the apparent granting of full ‘responsibility’ to managers if what we actually want is that they make exactly the decisions that we would make. Real delegation means more than ‘letting people learn from their mistakes’. Rather, it’s a matter of accepting that if people do things differently from us, that doesn’t mean they’re making mistakes. Their ideas may be better ideas than ours, their methods may be more efficient, more pragmatic. They may know more than we do.

If we want our businesses to grow, we’re bound to need specialist help from people who know more about some things than we do. We must learn to do the unthinkable and defer to someone else’s expertise. Collectively we achieve more that way. Ten ideas are better than one idea as long as a quick consensus can be formed and we can make a clear decision, whether personal or collective.

Real delegation grants others the responsibility to do things differently from us. If we can accept that, we’ll find plenty of ‘good people’ wherever we’re running our business – even in Czechia. I’ve found plenty of very good people.