Leaders… Are You Followable? | #LatimerAt20

This is the third in a series of short essays written by CEO and Founder Dean Brenner, to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of The Latimer Group. In this series, Dean will share his reflections on, and learnings from, the last two decades. 

It is highly likely that you have heard Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is widely referenced and requoted, so I am guessing that you have.

But have you heard this one? “The people inside your organization will follow you for one of two reasons: because they want to, or because they have no choice.”

The source for the second quote happens to be yours truly. We agree with Drucker, and in our work, we see first-hand how leadership behaviors define culture. If culture is as important as Drucker claims, then leaders need to cultivate a culture that will cause their people to buy in, and follow along for the ride.

In today’s world, the strongest and most successful leaders will be intentional about their leadership behaviors. They will prioritize having a positive impact on their employees and thus will make themselves “followable.” Otherwise, more and more employees will look elsewhere, choose to work for another organization, and follow someone else’s lead. Over the last twenty years, and especially over the last two, the power dynamic between employers and employees has shifted dramatically, and leaders ignore this shift at their own risk.

The causes for the shift are many: the rise of the knowledge economy; a far more diverse workforce; better access to information and the ability to share it easily and quickly; the rise of social media and the “opinion industry;” and the tidal wave of social change that touches every element of our society. This a long list, indeed.

And then the pandemic happened, which took the entire business culture and turned it on its head. Covid, and its impact on our work culture, has taught us many things, and will continue to for years to come. We are nowhere close to being able to accurately evaluate what the 2020-22 pandemic has done to the nature of work. 

But some things are clear now, and the early statistics are startling:

  1. 90% of US workers surveyed said that empathetic leadership (which includes “trust”, “transparency” and “follow-through”) creates higher employee job satisfaction. (Source: Ernst and Young)
  2. Toxic corporate culture is 10+ times more powerful than compensation in predicting corporate turnover. (Source: MIT Sloan Management Review)
  3. The number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs is 25% higher than it was pre-pandemic. (Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

These statistics, and many more like them, tell a crystal-clear story. Covid has had a big impact on our work culture. Employees are far more selective in where they work and who they follow and are far more vocal when they don’t like what they see. Leaders must have a high Emotional Quotient (“EQ” for short) and prioritize the well-being of their employees.

They must show their employees that they listen, and that the employees’ voices are heard, and that they care about a lot more than just the bottom line. Leaders with no or low EQ, will not be followed for long.

So, the essential question that every leader must ask themselves is this: “What makes me followable?”

No one can answer that question for you. Answers will differ based on the leader’s default style and authentic self; industry; the point in company’s lifecycle; and other variables. No one can script an exact answer for what makes a leader followable, that will work for all of us, all the time.

BUT… the thoughtful and intentional leader will continue to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are leading in a way that makes them followable. The leader who doesn’t, and who just assumes people will follow because of title or reputation, will certainly have missed the tectonic shift that has taken place.

Here are some questions that often come up in my leadership coaching sessions, and that I find helpful for my own leadership journey:

  1. What kind of environment do I create within our place of work? Is it the kind of place that people want to spend time in? Because they don’t have to stay.
  2. How well do I balance performance of the business and quality of life for employees? Swing the pendulum too far towards performance, and the culture gets cold and ruthless. Swing the pendulum too far towards quality of life, and the culture gets unambitious. And either extreme will chase talent away.
  3. Have I built, and do I maintain, a culture based on trust and transparency? Balancing the extremes is once again important. The leader who cares little about trust and who makes minimal effort at transparency won’t keep quality colleagues around for very long. But the leader who cares too much, and shares too much in pursuit of perceived trust, will create a whole different set of problems.

At the end of the day, leaders still have to run a business, and still have to care about the bottom line. But while in the past leaders could lead based almost entirely on the bottom line, today that is no longer the case. The best leaders will maintain a good balance between culture and performance.

The point here is that the calculus on leadership success has shifted… it can no longer be just about the bottom line. Leaders have to make themselves followable and have to build a culture that good people want to join and commit to. It is not automatic that people will fall in line behind us. There is more choice and more empowerment to make a different choice than ever before.

Are you followable? Are you sure? Think about it… carefully.

Have a great day.

 

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.