Strong Followers are Essential: Interview with Joe LaSala

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“I want to be your bass player - necessary, holds the song together, but doesn't need to be out in front.”

As he tells the story, this is how Joe introduced himself when interviewing for his current role at Analytic Partners.

I asked him to share more of his thoughts about “bass-playing” at work because, although he holds a leadership position, Vice President of Marketing, he speaks in very practical terms about how crucial good following is to business, both for himself and for those he supervises. He also helped me to see how an emphasis on competent work, the realm of followers, helps to define success in terms of long-term, sustainable productivity for both clients and employees, rather than in terms of short-term gain or a race to an IPO. His current company, Analytic Partners, is a great example of balanced followership and leadership, and his perspective is a much-needed one at this moment of rapid change in the business world.

Sharna: Joe, I love that you evoked the image of the bass player in a business context. Would you share a little about where you are in your career right now and why this metaphor resonates with you?

Joe: Well, I was starting to realize, after 20 years, that I was reaching the top of the marketing food chain, but I was not interested in a position that would have me standing alone at the top. I know I do my best work when I’m part of something collaborative, and I’d rather be filling that bass player role in the band, so I was completely honest about that in my last interview, and I think it was actually a bit refreshing for them.

S: How would you define good followership, or good bass playing, as you call it?

J: Doing work well! Following is almost a dirty word in business, but I think what we need is actually more good followers, more people who value doing good work. As basic as that sounds, it’s not as common as you might think. Perhaps it’s hard to see the reward for just competently doing your job. It’s not very flashy, and it’s typically taken for granted.

S: I would really love to redefine the term “follower” in the business world, so that it’s no longer a “dirty word,” as you pointed out! Do you think there is a certain personality or type of employee who makes a great follower?

J: A good follower anticipates needs before they are noticed which makes them valuable but also under appreciated. While praise and appreciation are welcome, they may not be the driving force for truly great followers. Getting the task at hand done well, helping others, and being useful is more important. I think being useless is the worst feeling for them.

S: If we were to acknowledge both leading and following as equally valuable, it makes sense to me that some people might be naturally drawn to one role or the other, and be more likely to admit this to be true. But I also wonder if followership skills can be learned, and therefore taught, to anyone in an organization. In your capacity as a leader, how have you encouraged or mentored those you supervise to be good followers?

J: In general, I try to make their work less about a series of tasks and more about them understanding the bigger picture. I think communicating that you need their creativity and soliciting advice and input from them is really important. At times I can remove certain obstacles for them or get budget allocations, but in general, you have to come from a collaborative place, that we’re all working on something together rather than a top-down style of direction.

S: Could you share any common problems that you see arising from poor followership, or from our habit of diminishing the importance of good followership?

J: Some followers aren’t invested in the success of the enterprise, and they just get dragged along. Even if they see something is wrong, they don’t say anything. The more disruptive problem is followers who think they’re leaders. In previous roles, I would think to myself, “I know you have a lot of ideas and you think that you know everything but you need to listen more and be more collaborative so that you can understand why and how we do things, so that down the line you will be able to contribute in a useful, meaningful way.” These kinds of followers usually don’t last long, whereas the first type may linger for years, even if not advancing.

S: And how do you attempt to engage that first, more passive type of follower, the one that hangs on for a long time even though they don’t seem to be truly invested?

J: I find that continually rewarding participation is a good way to change a more passive mindset, though it’s important not to simply pile more work and responsibility on your best people! I give the tools and resources to be able to do the job and then trust people to do it. I am also clear about how they can “manage up,” give tips on how to read the execs (when to push, when to pick your battles), let them know they have a say in how they are managed, and that it is ok to just do the thing they need to do without asking permission. 

S: What would you say are the risks or potential negative results of chronically under-acknowledging followership roles?

J: A big risk of taking followers for granted is lower retention rates and, over time, losing the players who are actually holding everything together. This can especially impact the company culture if those rewarded are the ones who are good at politics rather than good at getting things done. The culture can become more aggressive and less empathetic. Leadership can be hard to measure, and can be rewarded in ways that invite bias, so you often see organizations built on “mirrortocracy” rather than meritocracy.

S: Would you give us an example of what that might look like, based on your experience?

J: Many people in leadership positions come from a very “type-A” sales focus. With too many of those people in the room, everyone has lots of ideas but in the end nothing gets done. No one wants to take notes, and one meeting leads to another. Looking at an opposite situation, my current company grew simply by doing good work for clients. Advancement is similarly based on merit, not on being overly aggressive. We have strong leaders, but there is a better balance.

S: It sounds like, to stay healthy, a company might want to consider that their leaders also need to be good followers, and I wonder if you feel this is the case at Analytic Partners?

J: Analytic Partners is independent and woman-owned, and a good chunk of the top positions are held by women. I don’t think it’s an accident that our leadership is very collaborative and that the company focuses more on producing consistent, quality work for our clients than on aggressive sales strategy and continual revenue growth.

S: I’m interested in the link that seems to exist between a company’s valuing of followership and that company’s particular definition of success overall. I might hazard a guess that extremely leader-centric (masculinist, perhaps?) companies might strive for maximum growth, have high turnover, and reward aggressive behavior, whereas companies that value collaboration and dialogue alongside strategy and vision (modeling both masculine and feminine qualities?) might seek a moderate-risk, gradual growth model that is more sustainable over time. Do you have any thoughts on this?

J: I think you are onto something. It’s easy to see the gender dynamics here as the characteristics of leader-centric companies are similar to what you see as characteristics rewarded in boys (risk-taking, aggressiveness). I saw a statistic recently that showed that although women founders get less than half the funding of men, “women-run companies are returning 78 cents per dollar compared to 31 cents for the men.” Since only two percent of funding goes to women, you can imagine that only the “very best” get funding, so that could be the reason. Or, it could be due to women being less ego-driven and making sure and steady bets.

S: I think we should definitely write another article about that topic, but I’m going to change the subject here before we wrap up. I don’t think any executive would argue that doing good work is important, even crucial, but there still seems to be a huge blind spot for many companies around how to cultivate this ability in their own employees. I see leadership skills held up as the answer to almost every business problem, small or large, but obviously it isn’t, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Why do you think followership as a concept is so counter-intuitive in the business world?

J: There is something being overlooked in the fact that people who are good at their jobs are often automatically promoted into management, even when that is not where their skills lie. So then you are not only failing to recognize their true value as followers, but also setting them up to fail as leaders. But we are trained to think that’s the only path to success. So everyone wants to be a leader.

S: That makes me wonder if it could be possible to invent a system of reward in which employees earn salary increases or other benefits for good work without necessarily taking on leadership or managerial positions. Maybe there could even be some new family of titles for outstanding employees who want to remain in primarily following roles?

But I think I’ll save that conversation for another time! Thank you so much, Joe, for sharing your insights. I have enjoyed chatting with you about the concept of followership and look forward to the next opportunity. Readers, please share your thoughts with us in the comments.