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.