Early-career professionals who seek advice on being successful are frequently advised to focus on building their leadership skills. Many suggest that you have to be in a leadership position — a manager — to drive results or to move the organization forward. Leaders are important but not everyone can be assigned to a leadership position. Indeed, many do not aspire to lead others. They simply want to enjoy the rewards of being a productive employee through their individual contributions. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve known and worked with many colleagues who spent most or all of their careers as individual contributors. They have enjoyed successful careers and they have made major contributors to their employers.
Whatever the case, organizations need followers — employees who report to their leaders and contribute to the success of their organizations. In today’s intensely competitive world, followers cannot just be blind “worker bees” who take directions from their supervisors. They must “own the organization.” They must be productive. They must operate with minimal supervision. This may sound like a tall order, however, I suggest that this is an opportunity for you to be an important cog in your organization’s wheel — an opportunity to be valued and respected by your employer and your colleagues. And, most important, followers will enjoy the satisfaction and rewards in their role as members of our profession.
Let’s look at some important attributes of followers. Think of yourself as a very important person in the organization where your organization is better because you are part of it and where your supervisor values you and seeks your advice and thoughts on important decisions that need to be made. You are making a difference in your organization. How do you achieve this state?
The most important attribute of a follower is having a true sense of ownership for your job. Think of yourself as being a paid consultant working under contract to complete an important task or project. You understand your supervisor’s expectations and actively communicate with your work team to make sure you understand what you must do to align your actions with others on the team. The idea is to provide assistance in a supportive way where your teammates have an opportunity to be recognized for their contributions.
Good followers are not passive. As a follower, you should understand your supervisor’s expectations and actively communicate with your teammates to understand what you might be able to do to help them in their endeavors. You should be engaged, always seeking opportunities to be ahead of the curve in resolving issues and solving problems. A good follower is innovative and is constantly seeking new approaches and ideas. Good followers are aware of their environment and are willing to volunteer for special tasks or assignments when necessary. Along these lines, you should always keep yourself informed and be ready with well-reasoned answers to your supervisor’s questions.
You will often have opportunities to provide inputs on a variety of work-related issues and problems. This will require you to use and hone a variety of career skills, such as communications, problem solving and negotiating. Make certain that your analysis and recommendations are complete and in the best interests of your organization.
No doubt, you will encounter cases where your supervisor or some other person of authority proposes a solution to a problem or issue. In some instances you may see the proposed solution as problematic based on your intimate knowledge of the situation. You have a professional responsibility to propose an alternative solution that avoids the problem associated with the proposed solution. Make sure you are thorough and complete in your analysis of the issue at hand, and outline your proposed approach in a diplomatic way. When possible, you should look at more than one solution. Outline each proposal with the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Finally, followers are required to carry out tasks or complete projects in their area of expertise. Focus on good work habits in carrying out your work responsibilities. Deliver on time. Be organized. Don’t procrastinate. Be transparent – don’t hide problems. Keep your supervisor informed. Be knowledgeable by continually learning. Be skilled in the use of tools that enhance your productivity. And always turn in complete work of the highest quality. This will establish your reputation as a true professional – a valued employee who is respected throughout the organization.
The points I have outlined provide a path for a rewarding and successful career. Remember, it’s okay to be an individual contributor. Good followers are better individual contributors. Alternatively, being a leader is also okay. Developing followership skills is a good way for you to prepare yourself to lead others.
John Meredith is past president of IEEE-USA and current chair of IEEE-USA's Communications Committee.