Coaching For Followership

We had lunch the other day with our good friend Tracey and heard all about her experience volunteering for the Pan Am Games. With her background as a news reporter, she was selected to provide support to the media in attendance.

Over lunch, she remarked on the noise and excitement of the crowds, particularly when the stands were filled with children. She commented on how steadfast the media were, writing stories amidst such fervour and cacophony. But mostly she talked about how much her volunteer colleagues could use followership coaching, especially the Millennials: how every request was met with a challenge; how every adaption the team needed was stubbornly refused; and how oblivious they seemed to the negative impact of their unsupportive behaviors.

Interestingly, the need for followership coaching doesn't rest with the millennial generation. Lots of people can use a little help (or a lot of help!) in this regard. Even CEO's...

A few weeks back, Marc and I were in Orlando, Florida at a conference. We did a session and had a book signing in the conference bookstore.

We arrived at the bookstore nice and early, as did Marshall Goldsmith. Marshall has the #1 bestselling business book in America right now and is considered the top coach of CEO's and executives in the world. Although we hadn't met face to face before, Marshall had been reading our ideasletter for a few years and generously supplied an enthusiastic endorsement for our book. We were excited to connect with him, hang out, and have an opportunity to let him know how much his work has inspired us.

Marshall and I popped off to get a coffee together before the signing and had a lovely chat. As I do executive leadership and followership coaching, I was dying to ask him, "Of all the CEO's you are coaching right now, how many are you coaching for followership rather than leadership?" Marshall looked away for a quick second, then smiled and nodded, "Four!" or about half.

Interestingly, this has been my experience, too. About half the people who come to me for leadership coaching actually need followership coaching, and sometimes, quite desperately!

Why Followership Coaching?

  1. Like leadership, people can be good, indifferent, or simply awful at followership.
  2. We don't talk about followership - it can be the 'F'-word in organizational life. Because of this, feedback, training, and mentoring of it are almost always insufficient.
  3. Executives who only focus on leadership often derail - poor followership is the leading cause of careers going off the tracks.
  4. Good followership is empowering. It greatly improves and expands a person's influence in an organization - more broadly, more strategically - and not just with the leader.
  5. Bad followers devilishly suffer from the Pitchfork Effect, i.e., it doesn't matter how good they are at everything else, poor followership is what gets noticed and taints whatever good skills they have! This is the opposite of the Halo Effect, when being good at one thing is taken as a sign of being good at everything.

How to Coach for Followership

Coaching for followership is a lot like coaching for leadership, except that people are not as familiar with the ideas, and may not have a language for it. Because of this, there are some similarities between the two, but also some differences!

1. Hold up a mirror. Ask good clarifying and revealing questions. For example...

  • What are you doing to build and nurture the relationship with your leader/leaders? In the case of CEO's this is typically the board or owner. For entrepreneurs this includes investors.
  • What are all the additional things you could be doing to support your leader?
  • How are you sharing accountability for being on your leader's wavelength? If you aren't taking the lion's share of the accountability, think about starting to. The most successful executives don't leave things to chance; they take the initiative and are intentional in their actions.

2. Encourage your coachee to probe for precise, actionable feedback from their leader. For example...

  • Overall, how am I performing in my followership role with you?
  • Do you feel fully supported by me?
  • Do I take initiative in the right ways?
  • Am I on your wavelength and do I represent you well?
  • Do you feel I am fully engaged?
  • Do you count on me to be a true thinking partner?
  • What are all the ways I could be even more effective in this role with you?

3. Share best practices. Research into followership has yielded best practices that work. We share lots of these in our new book, Leadership Is Half The Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership and Collaboration.

4. Encourage use of the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated. Have your coachee discuss how they apply the Platinum Rule, and ways they might apply it even more effectively. How are they clarifying and confirming how others want to be treated?

5. Use the f-word, followership! Followership and leadership are discrete skills requiring specific language and attention. Your coachee could be doing one well and not the other.