The fine art of followership
VOICES ON PROJECT MANAGEMENT
by Gina Abudi
Project managers must be willing to hand over the reins to team members every now and then.
Project management is, essentially, about the ability to influence others, often without the benefit of any direct authority. But sometimes the success of a project hinges upon your ability to let your teammates influence you. It all comes down to followership.
What exactly is followership? Robert E. Kelley, author of The Power of Followership [Doubleday/Currency, 1992], identified “exemplary followers” as those individuals who excel at the tasks they are assigned, engage with teammates and provide intelligent, well-thought-out support.
For project managers, that means knowing when to abdicate their role as leaders and temporarily become followers.
Imagine a large IT integration project that would have a major impact on an organization. Chances are the project manager isn't aware of all the complexities of the systems or the possible failure points. An application development specialist approaches the project manager with her concerns about the direction the project is heading and offers solutions. The project manager brings this advice to the team and stakeholders, crediting the application development specialist for her keen eye and expertise. That person then gets approval to change direction and successfully concludes the project.
Take a counter-example in which a project manager fails to see the merits of followership. A team member is helping develop new manufacturing processes and notices the schedule was adjusted after being approved by the team and the stakeholders. When the team member asks the project manager about the change, the project manager says that in reviewing the schedule, he determined that adjustments could be made to reduce the time, which would look better to the stakeholders. The team member points out that the original schedule was, in fact, already an aggressive one. She expresses concern that the new schedule would be impossible to meet and could create anxiety and frustration for an already-overworked team. The project manager refuses to budge. By failing to heed the advice of a team member, he has put the project in jeopardy.
FROM LEADERS TO FOLLOWERS
Good followers are not focused on themselves, but rather see the greater good.
Here are some actions project managers can take to exhibit effective followership:
- Allowing team members to make decisions—when appropriate—for their components of a project
- Conceding that even junior team members may have expertise of great value
- Asking for assistance when a component of the project falls behind schedule or needs additional support
- Providing suggestions to get a project back on track when it falls behind schedule
A project manager who blames the team for every problem, takes credit for all the good work, micromanages and permits no autonomy will soon be pushed aside as team members look elsewhere for the leadership they need.
Good followership also sets the stage for a new generation of leaders. Team members following a good leader—one who knows how to be a good follower—will eventually turn into some of the best leaders in an organization. PM
Gina Abudi is a partner and vice president of strategic solutions at Peak Performance Group Inc., a consulting company in Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA. She currently serves as president-elect of the PMI Massachusetts Bay Chapter Board of Directors and served on PMI's Global Corporate Council, including as chair of the Leadership Team.
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