Being a “great follower” usually isn’t thought of as an aspirational role, and in fact, being labeled a follower typically carries a negative connotation. Yet, the reality is that no organization can be effective without people to execute a leader’s vision. And good followers, especially those who are able to ‘manage up’, are actually what makes it possible for their bosses to develop good leadership practices in the first place.
In the “followership” model developed by Dr. Robert Kelley, the “effective follower” is an intelligent, motivated, and self-reliant individual who is driven by a desire to support a vision or cause that they understand objectively and believe in. And while they may not be interested in actually being a leader, it is their role as a complement to the leader that makes good leadership even possible. Because while the leader is responsible for setting the vision and communicating that vision to his followers, the effective follower is actually the one that takes responsibility for understanding the vision, coordinating with teammates, troubleshooting the process, and capably managing the tasks required to bring the vision and end goals to fruition.
Dr. Kelley’s followership model relies on a two-dimensional spectrum to classify different follower types. On one spectrum lies a follower’s inclination to think independently and critically – is the person able to solve problems on their own, or do they simply operate rotely, coming to a standstill when they are faced with a novel problem? On the other end of the spectrum, the engagement level of the follower is assessed – is the person actively engaged in the work, making proactive choices and paying attention to what’s happening in their environment? Or are they passively waiting for cues from others, telling them what to do next? The “effective follower” is high on both spectrums – they are actively engaged, and display highly independent, critical thinking skills. Whereas “Sheep Followers” are low on both spectrums, “Yes People” are actively engaged but with a proclivity for dependent, uncritical thinking. “Alienated Followers”, meanwhile, are very capable of being independent, critical thinkers, but are not actively engaged in their work, and “Survivors” can go either way on both spectrums – they adapt their behavior in a manner so as to simply ‘survive’ in their jobs.
This concept of followership aptly applies to many financial advisor-employees who may not be immediately interested in running or starting a firm of their own, because it is primarily the process of financial planning that many advisors love – not the management of an organization. And the most effective advisor-employees will often be the ones who recognize that the work they do and love actually supports the broader goals and vision set forth by their firm’s leadership, and who are motivated to help their firms reach those specific goals.
Thus, it behooves the financial advisors who represent the leadership of their firms to support their advisor-employees into “effective followership” roles. A task that can be accomplished by simply having honest discussions with employees, consciously supporting their advisors by providing them with positive guidance or the tools needed to do their jobs well, or by actively designing more formal training programs helping employees understand the different styles of followership. Importantly, leaders who tend to focus on transformational growth, who are empathetic and emotionally intelligent, and who know how to reward employees who contribute to supporting the firm’s vision are those who are most effective at cultivating good followership practices in their employees.
Ultimately, the key point is that good leaders and good followers depend on each other; neither is more important than the other in achieving the firm’s vision. Moreover, firm owners can support their advisor-employees with the principles of followership by clarifying the synergistic roles of leaders and followers, facilitating open discussions and frank conversation about the firm’s vision and goals, and offering guidance and mentorship to employees who may be interested in eventually becoming leaders themselves.
Today’s financial planning offices face some difficult human capital challenges when it comes to bringing new advisors into the firm. Hiring advisors is tough. Training them is tough. Dealing with turnover is tough. And while firm owners can effectively manage these challenges with the introduction of more organized advisor hiring and training processes, turnover is not necessarily alleviated with operational improvements alone. Turnover and its many symptoms – disengaged employees, alienated employees, or passive employees – pose a question of culture and the relationships that exist between firm owners and the advisors who work for them.
In short, leaders need their followers, and without happy, motivated, and courageous followers, the leader is not going to get much done. As such, firm owners should understand the concept of “followership”, and know what’s involved in cultivating and developing a successful group of followers in their offices, just as financial advisors who choose to support a firm, rather than own or run their own firm, should understand what’s involved in being an “effective follower”.
What is Followership?
We are not talking about the classic view of a ‘follower’ as someone who mindlessly and blindly follows. Rather, we are discussing followership as complementary to leadership, involving an equally important set of skills. According to a model developed by Dr. Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University, “effective followers” are employees who not only engage in their work but who also use independent, critical thinking in their work roles. These employees are self-managed, committed to organizational goals, competent, brave, honest and reliable. You might be thinking, “Hmmm… effective followership sounds a lot like leadership.” And you would be (almost) right because followership skills and behaviors are almost the same as what we think of when we consider leadership.
For instance, in a financial planning firm, financial advisors with effective followership traits are those that operate relatively independently toward the goals and objectives set by the leader. They are very good at, and understand the value of task management, and are perhaps diligent about CRM use… but they do not set the strategic vision related to the tasks at hand (which is the leader’s responsibility to set). While they are willing and able to call meetings with other colleagues to solve pain points in a client process, they are not the ones who would necessarily draw out the process (which is the leader’s responsibility to lay out). Finally, they are quick to ask for the tools they need to get the job done (whereas a leader may not even be aware of the tools needed since they are not directly involved in the day-to-day tasks of the greater vision).
The chart below differentiates between leadership tasks and followership tasks, showing that while leaders and followers have many similar characteristics, they manifest in different ways and serve different purposes.
In his followership model, Dr. Kelley developed five “followership” categories based on two characteristics: 1) engagement, and 2) independent, critical thinking. While the ideal employee is an “effective follower” who is high in both independent, critical thinking and engagement, there are also four other potential combinations of these characteristics that one should be aware of to work with employees and understand their potential needs.
The “Sheep” followers are passive, with low engagement, and lack the ability for (or choose against) independent, critical thinking. “Yes people” are actively engaged but still don’t employ independent, critical thinking. “Alienated followers” are those who are passive and not actively engaged, but who tend to think independently and critically (but are “alienated” and thus may actively hold back from executing or communicating their ideas). And finally, “Survivors” are individuals who can be passive or active, and who may think critically and independently sometimes, but not always; they adapt their behavior in such a way so that they simply “survive” their situations.
This categorization system begs the question, “Can (and should) effective followership practices, like good leadership practices, be taught?” in an effort to develop critical thinking and active engagement (i.e., to make team members more Effective Followers). And the answer is, absolutely, yes.
In fact, research in this area is very quick to dispel the misconception that people automatically know how to follow. It is important for leaders to understand how to help employees who are trying to become effective followers, and how to best support those employees who already are effective followers.
Why Does Followership Matter To Financial Planning Employee-Advisors?
Effective followership traits are model employee-advisor traits. These employees are the advisors who prefer to work for a firm, instead of running the firm. They can also effectively envision the client service ‘forest’ as a set of actionable tasks that make up the ‘trees’ – and these are tasks that they enjoy doing!
Essentially, these advisors grow personally from helping clients. This growth could be partially based on how the advisors are wired psychologically, or it might be related to what motivates them. Regardless of where the growth comes from, though, it is an important consideration as it pertains to job satisfaction and burnout.
Open Communication Is Essential To Cultivate (And Support) Effective Followers
Returning to the examples above, when a firm owner states a vision, advisors who work for the firm may not necessarily automatically know how to best carry out that vision. Thus, the owner needs to discuss the vision with the advisors, as well as the resulting tasks required to support that vision. Setting expectations along with clear, measurable goals may sound like an obvious ‘given’ for the owner and so is very commonly overlooked, when in fact the advisors who support the owner’s vision actually need guidance from the owner who, as a good leader, should be aiming to achieve consensus and coordinate the efforts amongst advisors and support staff.
What is more, when leaders have such conversations with their followers, it is okay for them to say that they do not have the perfect answer. As the leader, the firm owner is there to facilitate an open dialogue (with enthusiasm!) to attain consensus between the people who are going to carry out the vision. The leader’s goal should be to foster transparency in the discussion to cultivate open lines of communication, with the ultimate goal of supporting their employees to become engaged, critically thinking effective followers.
Because ultimately, followership, as highlighted by comparing tasks associated with followership to those of leadership (outlined in the table above), is about a lot more than just doing what you are told. The leader facilitating the discussion about the firm’s vision needs to consider each different type of follower, involving them in a back-and-forth dialogue where all parties are encouraged to share ideas freely, without judgment.
As while the leader might have thoughts about how certain things could be done to open accounts for new clients, the followers are also likely to have good ideas, as they are the ones carrying out the tasks and who are actively engaging with clients during the account-opening process. They should also have the opportunity to actively engage with other employees to work together as a team.
Effective Followership (And Good Leadership) Is Associated With Greater Job Satisfaction
Research (albeit conducted predominantly in healthcare settings) has shown that effective employee followership is associated with greater job satisfaction and decreased burnout.
But that is not to say that it is solely up to the employee to create an environment where they enjoy their job. Instead, research points to the fact that high job satisfaction was supported by engaged and supportive supervision – employees want to know that their bosses see the work they are doing and that their efforts are supported. Leaders can also emphasize the development of individual skills and abilities by providing guidance for improvement, if needed, to move employees to become effective followers.
Furthermore, supportive leadership can increase intrinsic motivation in employees as their job becomes in some ways easier and more rewarding as they learn, and in turn, employees tend to work more independently with greater engagement. Teamwork is also inherent in this model; teams that include supportive leaders with their employees tend to stimulate participation, and when they spend more time together and collaborate closely with one another, exhibited decreased levels of burnout.
Finally, another happy followership finding is that effective followership is also associated with increased organizational performance. And this makes intuitive sense; if the majority of your workforce is happy and productive, the organization does better. Fostering effective followership (by encouraging trust, independent thinking, respectful disagreement, and active engagement) supports a positive and transparent work environment. Moreover, leaders are not more important than followers. Both the leader and the follower are important, and the relationship between the two is symbiotic through the different sets of skills. Leaders shape and set a safe, open culture. Followers in this safe, open culture are free to come up with new ideas, discuss hard problems, and lean on one another.
Designing A Followership Training Program In Your Advisory Firm
Given the significance of followership and its relationship to leadership, the fundamental challenge for most advisory firms is figuring out how to actually increase followership in practice – i.e., how to establish a followership training program to help guide employees to develop (or hone) the traits of an effective follower.
Important Considerations for Leaders Who Want to Implement A Follower Training Program
Before jumping into how one might carry out a followership training program, there are some important considerations for leaders themselves. Specifically, there is a key role for leaders themselves to foster a positive followership environment – as research has shown that effective followership can be fostered when leaders are transformational, emotionally intelligent, and know how to reward followership.
A transformational leader is someone who focuses on change and growth as opposed to transactional leadership, which only focuses on performance. Thinking about this in terms of developing followership, a transformational leader seeks out and supports those employees that are actively learning and trying new things. The ‘new thing’ might not always work, but that is okay because transformational leaders encourage growth and change, especially when it means that the firm no longer has to do X, because it isn’t as helpful as the new Y, which was developed by an employee experimenting with ways to improve X.
Emotional intelligence is also extremely important. Leaders with this trait are empathetic and able to connect with many different people – think consensus and coordination (two goals of a good leader). Leaders that are emotionally intelligent are also often comfortable with humility (stating that you don’t know the answer) and transparency (no hidden agendas, promoting a safe/comfortable environment for respectful dialogue). And in many ways, emotional intelligence and transformational leadership work together because they are both about developing trust between the employees and the leader.
Finally, as previously noted, leaders provide direction and are rewarded for doing so (because of the inherent enjoyment they experience from simply doing the things a good leader does); accordingly, their followers should be rewarded for supporting the vision and making it a reality. Leaders can have a great vision, but if no one is there to help make it happen…it doesn’t go anywhere.
As research has shown, when employees work as a cohesive team and feel that their bosses see and appreciate their efforts (telling them, but also providing them with the tools to their job when requested) employees become better followers – with increased engagement and high, independent, critical thinking.
Three Aspects of a Followership Training Program
There are three different aspects of followership that should be considered for a followership training program; each of these aspects can be used as themes for employee-advisor training opportunities.
The first aspect relates to the idea of creating a safe, open environment for discussions where the focus is on understanding how to have respectful disagreements. The leader can set the tone and the place for this dialogue to happen, and then both the leader and followers can practice how to disagree respectfully (perhaps creating role-playing scenarios with clients, a boss, or other employees). Which is a critical exercise, because disagreements are going to happen. You are never going to achieve honesty, bravery, and consensus in a room of compassionate, independent critical thinkers when it comes to having disagreements, without a little back and forth to practice (and that is not a bad thing!).
The second aspect follows from the first and relates to building credibility and reliability (with clients, bosses and other employees). People communicate in different ways, and people understand those communications in different ways, so there should also be a discussion (and on-going dialogue) about various communication styles, and the unique ways that people can understand and receive information.
The third and final aspect relates to the key differences between leadership and followership. This can involve a discussion and ongoing dialogue about the differences between leadership and followership – so those employees who do eventually want to lead can understand the difference. Not everyone wants to have a leadership role through starting or running their own firm, but many employee advisors who are followers within the firm may still have leadership responsibilities at some level (e.g., directing client support staff, or mentoring junior advisors). Thus, while there is a lot of importance in being and remaining a follower, it is still important for followers to be cognizant of good leadership practices and how they are distinct from effective followership traits.
How A Leader Can Develop Followership
Once the leader is clear about their role and understands the key aspects of an effective followership training program, they can begin to assemble a followership program. Teaching followership places a large emphasis on respectful communication and independent thinking, addressing four areas:
- How to disagree respectfully;
- How to build credibility/reliability;
- How to be responsible and demonstrate responsibility; and
- The differences between leadership and followership.
These four considerations can be broken down into two general areas. The first two considerations – developing skills to disagree respectfully and building credibility/reliability – can involve different team-building exercises. These can be as simple as reading books together as a group to learn how to talk to one another in high-stress environments. For instance, the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability are short, concise books with lots of exercises and examples.
Alternatively, attending a psychology/communication seminar can offer good team-building exercises. There are many to choose from, such as Myers-Briggs, Insights Discovery, CliftonStrengths (previously StrengthsFinder), or even The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. Moreover, no matter what direction you choose (and probably a mix of a few different seminars and books would be best), the leader’s goal is to allow and invite hard conversations in a safe environment, and to set the stage for when and how these hard conversations can take place.
The second two considerations, involving responsibility and the differences between leadership and followership, are best addressed through trial and error. Returning to the idea that followers should ask for the tools/programs/skills that they need for their work from the leader brings us back to the concept that effective followers take responsibility in pursuing corporate (and personal) goals.
Employees can only be responsible for themselves and for getting their job done. As such, the leader can actively task employees to find new and improved methods and bring them to the table for discussion or they may do it themselves. Those that pursue this work independently may have an eventual desire to lead. Those that do not, are not bad…again…you need great followers. Moreover, as the leader, you can help employees to ‘try on’ leadership by asking them to take the lead on different initiatives and allow those who want leadership to get the opportunity to lead.
In addition to the four areas that address responsibility and critical thinking, leaders should also understand the importance of rewarding, valuing, and acknowledging their employees, especially when the employees take responsibility in followership and/or leadership roles. It sounds simple, but a personal compliment or acknowledgment of a job well done can go a long way.
Ultimately, the key point is that the best employee advisors have traits that emulate those embodied by effective followers – they are actively engaged in the firm and support the firm’s vision; they display grace under pressure, flourishing in hectic situations; they enjoy (and are good at) working with clients and other members of their team; and they have (and use!) critical thinking skills proactively to get their jobs done.
Firm owners can also use the principles of followership to develop their advisors by facilitating open communication about the vision and goals set for the firm, as well as the tasks and processes that are needed to achieve those goals. And by addressing the differences between leaders and followers, a good leader can mentor employees who eventually want to become leaders themselves.
And even though it can be scary and difficult to communicate grand visions for the firm, take honest responsibility and ownership for work (whether it consists of success or failure), or stick your neck out on a new idea (especially when the new idea ultimately fails), effective followership, and good leadership, both require this level of bravery and honesty.