We spend a lot of time talking about leaders. Restricting the conversation to leaders & managers (henceforth 'leaders') misses a significant constituent body especially when planning for successful organisational change. We need to talk about 'followers.'
Regardless of whether we are considering 'followers' as part of the macro-plan for change (which they should be) or the local responsibility of leaders of change (which they should be too) engaging and preparing followers are all too often overlooked. They can also be under-invested in, for the change effort to go well. The ‘recipients’ of change need and deserve support to prepare them to enable change to happen and importantly, for it to live on beyond your strategic-level involvement.
Too close for comfort
I was involved in designing and delivering an organisation-wide leadership development programme back in 2010. The purpose of of the programme was to provide a framework that helped leaders support the whole business through a significant culture change. We spent nearly 18 months with over 1500 leaders. What we discovered was that the people in the teams of these leaders had little idea that the change was coming and were uncertain how to respond to it.
Thankfully, we found out just about early enough.
But the consequence for the leaders of these early cohorts was that members of their teams decided not to engage with the changes for fear of ‘getting it wrong.’ Many, according to feedback, were also of the belief that if they waited it out, this change effort, like some before it, would simply fizzle and die. We had failed to prepare the ‘followers’ for the change effort sufficiently. We had also made too many assumptions about how the change would work for front line employees, what the experience would be like for them and what their role in the success of the transformation was going to be.
The why and the how of followership
You can galvanise the energy from across your organisation, whilst also reducing resistance by enagaging your followers. You can also share the workload, rather than be overly-reliant on a small group of leaders to drive all the change. It is possible to complement the leaders’ ‘push’ with a ‘pull’ effect from the majority. That volitional effort is vital if transformation is going to land well and embed effectively over the desired time-scale.
It is also important to remember two key dynamics that happen in organisational transitions. Firstly, many followers will themselves be called upon to lead, as your organisation changes. Being close to and supportive of them, is key to developing their engagement and willingness to step up when asked. Secondly, those you consider ‘leaders’ will themselves shift into ‘follower’ mode at times. When those more senior take centre stage leaders down the organisation become followers. It is easy to forget this transformation.
We would urge you to map all ‘followers’ in your transformation planning and consider what appropriate measures of support you can provide for each group.
To develop effective followership here are two key steps taken by progressive organisations who are willing and open to learn:
- Engage people who help the organisation learn and adapt, through collective inquiry. Transformation is too complex an undertaking for a single source to understand. Accessing a range of perspectives is key to your change leaders implementing, delivering and sustaining desired change. Therefore, engaging with your stakeholder groups not only shows them the respect that is deserved, but also provides you with important, hard-to-access learning. Setting up focus groups can seem a bit old-hat. Developing some Action Learning or Group Coaching circles provides compound benefits: Targeted development coupled with open channels to share ideas back to the business.
- Require mobilisation of stakeholders to self-initiate and then monitor. Leaders should create the conditions to unleash energy and ideas that are latent. It can seem scary especially at times of uncertainty to encourage self-organisation. But encourage it you must. Also tap into and enrich social networks so that empowerment and communication can work together in a powerful synergy, to capture the innovations and insights that result from such forums. Short sprints of accelerated experimentation coupled with effective feedback loops provides rich and time-sensitive information about the progress of the transition that you can use to adapt your approach.
Exigence works with organisations to deliver full-stack HR leadership development solutions, from Executive and senior team coaching to group and AI coaching. If you would like to discuss how we can help you deliver quantifiable impacts for your organisation, we'd love to hear from you - just contact us here.