Leaders Need Followers: Tips for Team Performance

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By Sam Coupland

When it comes to maximising the performance of a firm, much of the focus is placed on leadership. This often involves enhancing the leadership skills of the existing leaders, but we can’t lose sight of the people they are supposed to be leading. Success can be attributed partly to how well the leaders lead, but probably more important is how well their followers follow.

Whether or not your firm has successful leadership and followership will be demonstrated in a number of ways.

It may be that you have a highly cohesive team whose members understand and enjoy the role they play in achieving the overall goals of the firm. People are enthused about their work, they constantly seek better ways of doing things and they service their clients – whether internal or external – with their best efforts. This situation would indicate effective leadership and followership is in place.

If developing the quality of followers in your firm will be beneficial, the first task is to identify the desired characteristics of those in a follower role. The nature of legal practice is such that most people will very likely have a leadership role and follower role during different times of the day as well as at different points during their career. Even when one has subordinates, one still has bosses.

Characteristics of Effective Followers

Those people who make the most effective followers share a number of characteristics.

Self-Management Skills

Effective followers have the ability to exercise control over their work and are comfortable operating without supervision. They are confident they have the requisite knowledge and skill set to perform all tasks asked of them.

More importantly, effective followers understand their role in the team and how their actions benefit the firm as a whole. They take an active interest in the overall well being of the team and do not focus on the hierarchy that may be in place. The difficulty for some practitioners is that they can feel uncomfortable having self-managing subordinates, as the pressure to perform as a leader is a burden they would prefer to do without.

Competence and Focus

Effective followers master the skills that will benefit both their careers and the firm for which they work. This will involve attending courses and conferences relevant to their current and future roles, with a view to making themselves a more effective member of the team.

High levels of competence also allow for these people to have responsibility delegated to them. They are able to identify potential problems and present formulated solutions for the consideration of the team and leaders.

Value and Goals

The values and goals of effective followers are aligned with those of the firm. Satisfaction is gained from accomplishment. Effective followers will be committed to achieving a particular goal. These goals may be large or small, varying from successful outcomes in a litigation matter to completing all the word processing in the ‘In’ tray. It is not the size of the goal that is important, but the commitment to achieving it that sets people apart. A high level of commitment can be contagious.

Creating Effective Followers

Creating effective followership can be difficult. In many firms, a leadership role such as associate or partner is the definition of success. Leadership skills are taught and encouraged while followership is not. This gives the impression that those in a followers role are just along for the ride and the real difference is made by those at the top.

Practices wanting to perform at a higher level should espouse the notion that effective followership is essential for organisational success. These strategies can be implemented to improve the level of followership in your firm.

Role Definition

The distinguishing feature between followers and leaders is the role they play as opposed to their level of skill, intelligence or ability. Providing well-publicised role definitions will contribute significantly to ensuring that an ‘us and them’ mentality is avoided.

Often leaders in a firm are solicitors who have assumed a leadership role by virtue of their legal skills and seniority as opposed to their individual leadership ability. In such a situation, a well defined role for the leader is essential. For example: if a leader’s role is defined as being one to motivate others, the leader will likely react toward followers as if they need motivating. A more effective role for the leader would be to:

  • set firm / department goals and strategies
  • monitor performance and timelines
  • effectively delegate work
  • communicate enthusiasm

Similarly, the role definition of those in a follower’s capacity would involve:

  • having a thorough knowledge of how their actions contribute to the final outcome of a matter and the overall objectives of the firm
  • having the capacity and desire to work as part of a team
  • creating congruence between personal and corporate values and goals

Having defined these roles (note – these are not job descriptions), it is essential that they become part of the firm culture rather than just something to which you pay lip service.

The importance of these roles can be conveyed to all in the firm through training and by example.

Training

There is an assumption that leadership has to be taught and that following is simply a matter of doing what you are told. Providing training to all members of your team will enhance overall performance.

For those in a subordinate role, the most effective training that will improve their levels of followership are courses which increase their understanding of the firm’s goals and objectives. Such courses may include:

  • The cash flow cycle of a legal practice;
  • How various matters are priced and selling value to clients;
  • Business development skills.

Organisational Structure and Culture

The culture within the firm will have a significant bearing on the effectiveness of people within your teams. Practices that have an inclusive approach to all members report significantly higher levels of team and individual performance. Such a culture encourages people to push the boundaries of their ability. This in turn creates motivation to increase skills and accept greater responsibility.

Delegation is a significant way of encouraging the right sort of behaviour. Have the courage to push work down to subordinates. Provide assistance where necessary and allow them to learn from the experience of others.

Similarly, the involvement of members of the team in strategic planning and goal setting will quickly build commitment and enthusiasm in those you require to be committed and enthused.

At the end of the day, the best way to test the quality of your leadership is to look over your shoulder and see if anyone is following.