IT leaders cannot lead without willing followers. The best way to build this vital circle of your professional network is by empowering them.
Your strategy’s only as strong as it is implemented well. And you can implement it well only to the extent that your followership is strong.
Your followership is the most potent circle of your professional network, and it, perhaps more than anything else, empowers you to influence and implement, with or without authority.
Brett Lansing, CIO of multibillion-dollar home healthcare provider AccentCare, has written the playbook on building followership. That expertise and his own followership has landed him a chief technical role several times and earned him Dallas CIO of the Year in 2022.
Here, Lansing shares his five-point approach to building a followership. He explains how to apply it when you must influence without authority, and how it will continue to elevate you as a leader.
Respect creativity wherever it comes from
Management does not hold a monopoly on ideas, though many leaders act as if it does. Great ideas can and should come from any level of the organization. Lansing recalls a time when he invited junior staff to critique a decision that he and his senior leaders had reached after much deliberation, one that would see a key capability outsourced. Not only did the junior team flag oversights; it put forth solutions that would address leadership’s concerns while keeping the capability in house.
You stand to create a lot of value if you welcome ideas irrespective of their source. The hard part, however, is convincing your people that you do in fact welcome their ideas. This is especially true for junior employees, many of whom may have grown leery of promises that managers’ doors are always open or that laborious idea submission processes are worth the time.
Lansing suggests a couple of strategies to get people sharing. The first and most important is this: Live up to your promise. If you say you’re open to ideas but ignore them when they’re offered, those doing the offering won’t bother again. Solicit ideas repeatedly. And when they are given, make the time to evaluate them carefully and honestly, offering constructive feedback wherever you can.
Establish a quarterly ideas forum
Lansing also suggests creating a space for employees to pitch ideas or identify problems they want to solve — and do so in a way that ideas don’t need to be fully developed or packaged in a PowerPoint. “You need to lower barriers to brainstorming and innovation,” he says.
The true power of these forums is in their ability to create momentum, Lansing says. “You just get people to throw out ideas, then soon enough, everyone’s building on them, talking about ROI and value-creation models and all this stuff,” he adds. “Suddenly, you have something on the roadmap you never expected.” Lansing learned this not long after starting these meetings, about ten years ago at a previous employer, where the forums regularly drew 30 to 45 attendees.
At AccentCare, Lansing has extended the promise of these forums through what he calls “Happiness Hours,” a part of his perennial effort to minimize attrition. In these meetings, teams are encouraged to identify the activities or features of their work they most enjoy, or the enhancements to those activities and features that, if made, would most improve employees’ work lives. “Don’t overlook the correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction,” he says.
Empower your team to lead
One of the best ways to empower your teams is to encourage them to “find opportunities in the chaos,” Lansing says.
By “chaos” Lansing means something that is out of order — a process, department, tool, or the like — that if put in order presents an opportunity to build a competitive advantage. For example, reorienting your operating model around products or adopting an emerging technology such as AI. Don’t let the chaos depress your teams, Lansing says. Let it exhilarate them.
It’s also an opportunity for your teams to prove themselves. Chaos — and the pressure to quell it — forces teams to strip away what is nonessential: inconsequential tasks, silly arguments, and unsolicited destructive criticism. In this way, chaos can focus, align, and reinforce bonds of camaraderie if, rather than insulating your teams from the chaos, you let them embrace it.
Focus your workforce on strategic imperatives
Focus on key priorities can not only create business value but also boost employee morale. People crave purpose and mission — and to not feel as if everyone’s pulling in different directions and thus going nowhere.
To help keep this focus, Lansing says it’s vital to celebrate small wins — progress, not perfection. “We make the time to inspire and motivate our team,” he explains, “recognizing jobs well done every week. And this is especially important for your big initiatives. These may take years to finish. You can’t wait until then to celebrate. You have to plan milestones worth celebrating.”
Of course, keeping focus assumes that you havea focus and know your priorities. If not, then this is the time to identify them.
Insist on challenging the status quo
This principle draws on all the others. By encouraging your team to shake things up, you catalyze the flow of new ideas, challenge your teams to stand for something, and train their focus on what is important.
But this, too, is easier said than done. “Don’t fear it,” Lansing says. “But come prepared.”
Challenging the status quo is difficult because it can get very personal and entail a lot of risk. If you need a reminder of this, maybe re-watch Moneyball. How Billy Beane transformed baseball is now a part of that sport’s lore. Forgotten, however, is how close he came to destroying his own team and career to do it.
IT leaders who employ these principles do more than just build their followership, Lansing says. They also fill their “treasure chest” with the attitudes, knowledge, and tact that gives you breadth as a leader, a key attribute to be acquired by any technical leader hoping to become a business leader.
Yet followership in and of itself should be a priority, he notes, recalling a lesson from his father.
“‘Brett,’ he told me, ‘it doesn’t matter how much you know. If you can’t get your team to follow your lead, you won’t ever get the ball in the endzone.’ The more I learn, the more I realize just how true that is,” Lansing says.