A View From the Top: Value-Add Followership

To: Corporate Leader at AnyCompany

Subject: You Have Abandoned Most of Your Employees

What is your ratio of management to individual contributors? Just as a point of reference, let's use one out of ten. Whether you think of that as a good overall average, or a sure sign of having too much overhead for a modern business, at that rate, ninety percent of your workforce has little to no hope of career advancement to management. Odds are, you consider your management team as either full or perhaps over-full. Pick any other ratio; the point will remain. There is relatively little room for advancement in most companies until someone higher-up leaves the company, or growth calls for a new management position. Both of which are, for the average business, rare events.

How unfortunate if my quickest path to advancement is for my manager to fail.

Wait a minute! Who said that being a made a manager is the only way to advance one's career? Almost everyone. Managers have more status inside and outside the organization because they have more decision-making responsibility, more formal and informal influence, a larger cross-organizational role, more impact on the working conditions — and pay — of others, and are themselves paid at a higher rate.

But advancement isn't everything, What about being part of something terrific? I'll return later to the sort of terrific thing I think most people want to be part of, but for now, let's just say that your employees don't believe this. If they did, they'd eventually notice that most businesses, likely including yours, keep referring to revenue and profitability as the most significant yardsticks for the company as a whole.

It's principally about the money and industry standing when we try to establish value for a company. Unsurprisingly, with an individual, it's also typically about the money and industry standing, which usually translates into job title.

"But in our company, we have dual career ladders," you say. "There are explicit advancements on a non-management track that are also accompanied by increased status, recognition, decision-making, influence, and pay." Some companies do use this model.

Using a software company, for example, you may say that a technical lead is parallel to a manager, an architect is parallel to a director, and a fellow parallels a vice president, but you probably don't mean it. Neither does hardly anyone else.

When you change someone's position from tech lead to manager, you feel you need to give them at least a small raise, because you see them as now having more responsibility. Conversely, when you make someone an architect, you do not in fact require that their contribution be similar in overall impact on the business as you would with a good director.

"Well, we value and reward leadership , not management," you say, as if management were some disease from the Middle Ages, "and there are many ways to lead and be rewarded for it." Even assuming that most companies know what leadership looks like in its many forms, and how to reward it — or better yet how to cultivate it — it would still come down to job titles, salaries, bonuses, and real, on-the-ground authority, influence, and recognition.

I want to make a point about leadership: it is, by its very nature, rare. And that's okay. If everyone in your company were a leader and no one was a follower, you'd get nothing done. That's why your management-to-staff ratio is what it is. Your company runs on followership, not leadership .

The company is efficient when everyone is well-aligned to the purposes, tasks, and culture set by the few. The few are necessary, but useless without the many. Just as much as the many are necessary but useless without the few.

If, we have a ten to one ratio, implicitly, you need ninety percent or more of your workforce to excel at following . Understanding this explicitly will help you see your company more clearly. Pizza on Fridays is a nice way of rewarding followership, but it is a token; a pale gesture. We need to rethink our system of encouraging this critical behavior.

World class followership is not the commoditized, mindless enacting of someone else's orders. World class followership is value-add followership. It is getting invested in making someone else's idea succeed — often much harder than getting behind your own brainchild — by challenging it constructively, enlarging it, trimming it, and bringing it to life in a way that fulfills the original inspiration, not the latest instruction. Pizza Friday just doesn't cut it.

As we learn to be articulate about the things we need our staff to do, we must underline those behaviors explicitly with public recognition every week. When architect Andrea has a great idea and engineer Eddie enlarges or constrains it in a way that improves it, thank Andrea, but after that, let the greatness of the idea speak for itself. By contrast, your public recognition of Eddie's smaller but critical contribution is necessary to tell your staff what you want from most of them most of the time . Give Eddie his one minute of fame and a gift certificate to take his family out to dinner (and let him be his family's hero for an hour) and you have built loyalty in the same instant you have breathed life into the day-to-day stuff that makes your company great instead of not great.

When Bob makes the build system ten percent faster, it does not revolutionize the world, but it makes a tangible difference in how long it takes to go through a development and test cycle. When Beverly knocks off twenty percent of the bug backlog, don't praise her for doing it on weekends (which is only a sign of your own management shortcomings), but for improving product quality (which is unequivocally good). When someone gets you to agree to put time into the schedule to materially reduce the bug backlog without anyone having to work weekends, celebrate that person's accomplishment. Help others see how to make a convincing case in the face of competing pressures. This not only rewards the one, it instructs the many, and it is a positive way of letting people know that making good on this opportunity is the best way to win similar arguments in the future.

Managers should track instances of great followership, periodically review them with their employees, bonus them on it, increase their pay based on it, give them public recognition for it, and use it as a major criterion for promotion on both the management and technical career tracks.

Your company is not suffering from an insufficiency of hero worship . Neither is it likely to be suffering from an insufficiency of good ideas. It is very likely to be suffering from a disjunction between lofty vision and down-to-earth execution. That's not because your execution team doesn't understand the business urgency. It's very likely because you don't communicate your appreciation of the execution. The lofty ideas part, no matter how "innovative," however hard it is, becomes child's play compared to actually delivering of a product or service that copes with its own past, prepares for its own future, and delights customers by solving problems in the real world today.

Never forget: You get what you measure. If all you measure is punctuality, you'll get warm chairs. By focusing our efforts on measuring the right things, we communicate effectively — and nearly effortlessly — what we need. Praising your people for the things that drive the company forward encourages others to emulate those traits and behaviors.

And there is not a single thing you need more of than value-add followership. Start publicly measuring it, and publicly appreciating it. The value-add individuals, and value-add teams, are in fact the engine of your success. Oh, and by the way, don't call it followership, because our culture has poisoned the idea that there is anything praiseworthy in being any part of a team other than the leader.

If the staff finds that their ideas add value and are appropriately recognized, and thus feel they are a valued part of their work community, do you think concerns about job titles will increase or decrease? Do you think productivity will increase or decrease? Do you think innovation will increase or decrease? Do you think people will be eager to maintain and improve their standing in this uniquely rewarding, socially connected, respectful company, or jump at the next offer from a competitor?

If you are successful in establishing a culture in which numerous small improvements are the subject of public appreciation, do you fear that all the big ideas will somehow disappear? To the contrary, when everyone knows that no idea is too small or too off-the-mark to be respected, and all good ideas may find a home, more of your team will have the confidence required to have and share ever-bigger ideas, and increasingly synergistic ideas. You have nothing to lose, and the larger contributions of your entire workforce to gain.

If you want to be a great company, start by being a great employer. If you want to be a great employer, start by rewarding value-add followership.

Bennett Barouch

Bennett Barouch, an executive at eBay, a Fortune 500 company, has been VP of Engineering at a half-dozen startup companies. Work he led is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian, for Outstanding Achievement in Information Technology. incredible combination of experience.

View more articles


Sep/Oct 2017