How to spot your future leaders: Start by identifying your followers

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We’ve all got memories that stick with us throughout our professional lives. Perhaps a moment we can recall from a meeting with a client or a manager; a team event; an interview; or a project that really had an impact on our career. I have quite a few, but there’s one particular memory from my years working in Hong Kong that I think about often. 

I had gone to meet with the APAC CEO of a global media company. I sat across from him at a massive oak boardroom table. He had his back to the window which looked out over a busy Hong Kong harbour. The walls were covered with framed memorabilia from horse and car racing events. I felt like I was in a scene straight out of Noble House (a great TV series but even better book by James Clavell). 

He had called me in to discuss a strategy to find him three or four leaders to work in various offices that sat within his remit. When I asked him when he realistically wanted them on board, he said, “My plan is to have them ready to assume their leadership responsibilities by 2010”. 

I sat there very confused. It was just before Easter in 2007 at the time! 

He then broke the awkward silence with, “So for now, what I really need you to do is to find me a handful of A-grade followers. Call me crazy, but by recruiting a group of loyal followers now, it’s my way of identifying my future leaders”. 

He had caught me off guard again. But by the end of our meeting, it all made sense. 

In setting his strategic vision, he had a plan to establish a brand-new business unit and rather than move people around internally, he wanted to start with a blank canvass and watch his future leaders develop in the business.  

We spent over an hour discussing his strategy and how / where I would fit in. As he walked me out of the boardroom he said, “Although I want you to find me followers, don’t even think about sending me any ‘yes people’. I can assure you there’s a huge difference”. 

Then just before the elevator door closed, he quoted Aristotle! “Remember, he who cannot be a good follower, cannot be a good leader”. 

Whilst I had walked into that meeting ready to take a regular recruitment brief, I walked out having had a lesson in leadership philosophy. And I have to admit that to this day, this was one of the most interesting projects I ever worked on. But at the same time, I gained some incredible leadership insights from this particular client, too. 

Followership. It isn’t simply a great training ground for leadership. Some would say it’s the path to leadership. 

The experts say that good followership is characterised by active participation in the pursuit of organisational goals. In many cases this means working independently, being accountable for your actions, and taking ownership of necessary tasks. It is the ability to take direction well, to get in line behind an initiative, to be a team player, and to deliver on what is expected of you. 

How well followers follow is probably just as important to a company’s success as how well their leaders lead. 

Back in the Hong Kong boardroom, I had asked the CEO what specific traits he wanted me to look for in his followers. 

I remember being a bit sarcastic suggesting that nobody includes “great follower” or “dedicated follower” under their list of attributes on their resume. 

“Well they should”, he replied. 

His list of core attributes was extensive, and included traits such as fierce independence, a critical thinker, highly motivated, an active listener, honesty, and having their ego in check. But he was adamant about three in particular: Adaptability, courage, and being a team player. 

“Individuals who can adapt will be the ones who stick by me as we work through times of change and transformation. Having the courage to speak up and stand by their values is a quality I want in all my people as I strive to build an ethical culture. And caring more about ‘we’ than ‘me’ will help make these individuals the glue that ultimately keeps everyone together”. 

After scribbling vigorously on the note pad in my compendium, I paused and looked up at him. 

“These are the same qualities I would typically be looking for if I was recruiting for a leadership role”, I said. 

“Exactly”, he replied with a big smile. “Like I said, I’m asking you to find me my future leaders”. 

Researchers in the field of organisational development cite Robert Kelley, the author of The Power of Followership, stating that ‘leadership’ affects an organisation’s success or failure by only 20 percent, while ‘followership’ can influence organisational effectiveness by as much as 80 percent. 

It’s not an overstatement to say that good followers matter as much to an organisation as good leaders. 

As I learned from my client in Hong Kong 15 years ago, if you want to spot your future leaders, identify (or in his case recruit) your followers first. 

And at the same time, if you aspire to become a leader, then make sure you can demonstrate the core traits of a leader by being a good follower.

While all good leaders need loyal followers, it’s those loyal followers who will ultimately become future leaders. 

It’s important not to be afraid of being a follower. It certainly doesn’t mean you are passive or subservient. And as my client pointed out, it doesn’t mean you’ll be considered one of the ‘sheep’. 

Followership is a concept that should be highly valued. 

It’s not only important for a leader to know she is trusted and respected by her tribe; it’s also important to a company’s overall success; and ultimately, it’s also important for the aspirations of high performers and future leaders within the organisation. 

Identifying and developing followers with potential should be part of any company’s long-term strategy along with grooming future leaders already in the organisation. Followership shouldn’t take a backseat to leadership. It shouldn’t remain ‘the hidden side’ to leadership but should rather be viewed as one of the key traits of leadership. 

What ultimately happened to the followers I had successfully recruited for my client in 2007? Although I had left Hong Kong, and was running my own company in 2010, I had kept in touch with the CEO, and learned that the new business unit opened on schedule, and he had his leaders in place across the region just has he planned. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to all leaders and followers in the organisation, combining the power of 1:1 coaching with curated learning to drive habit formation and meaningful growth. 

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