How to Be an Effective Follower First
Leaders can’t be leaders without followers. Professional development groups such as Toastmasters often promote building leadership skills, but there is value in building followership skills, too.
At our most recent Women L.E.A.D. Toastmasters meeting, I shared communication skills that I have learned are necessary to be an effective follower. Below is my speech, which is a level 2 pathways project about understanding different communication styles.
Today we are talking about leaders, but what about followers?
As a soon-to-graduate student of traditional Chinese medicine, people often ask me, are you going to start your own clinic? My answer is no, not yet, anyways. I’d rather follow more experienced practitioners first.
Our club leader, Renee, told me that effective leaders must first learn to be effective followers. That’s a nice way to put it – followers are leaders-in-training.
Recently I have been honing my following skills as a front desk assistant for my professor. This involves learning how to communicate effectively with my professor. Today I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far as a follower. I’ve learned that my communication must be efficient, clear, and individualized.
Efficient communication means that you avoid interrupting your team leader unless it’s important.
In the clinic, my professor is constantly multitasking as a practitioner, teacher, business owner, and non-profit director. While seeing just 3 patients in a morning tires me, he sees up to 15 patients in one morning, constantly going between treatment rooms and his office. He also has a group of associates who follow and learn from him.
Even though he seems like superman, I don’t want to tax his bandwidth. So when I have a message for him, I usually text him though our team chat, that way he can address it at his convenience.
Efficient communication also means that you try to answer your own questions and solve your own problems.
If I have an issue, I first do some detective work on my own. If no luck, then I ask a teammate, and lastly, my professor.
This is generally a good practice, but it’s especially important to support your team leader. They already have many demands competing for their time and attention, and you don’t want to add to that burden — or worse, to their burn-out. Instead, your goal is to lift some of that burden off their shoulders.
Clear communication means that you’re not afraid to speak up to prevent misunderstanding and mistakes.
When listening to your team leader, it’s helpful to repeat and paraphrase what they say. This helps you process what they are saying. It also helps them know if they are communicating what they want to communicate.
This is especially important if English is their second language, such is the case with my professor. He has a tendency to speak fast and mumble his words, so I often repeat what he says to make sure I heard him correctly. This usually helps, although he once thought that I was arguing with him.
He told me, “don’t be so casual; when you ask a patient to come to a room, say please.”
I repeated, “You want me to be more formal and say ‘please come to room 5?’”
He stared at me, “You don’t know? Don’t they teach you at school?”
I took a breath, “I just want to make sure I got it. Understood.”
Clear communication also means that you’re not afraid to ask your team leader for clarification.
It’s better to trouble the leader to explain again now, than to risk misunderstandings and mistakes later. Even if everyone else in the team is nodding like they get it, your question might bring forward an incorrect assumption or unseen issue.
Or maybe the rest of the team was nodding like they get it, but they don’t actually get it, so again, it’s worth asking.
Individualized communication means that you are sensitive to your leader’s communication style, and how they prefer to interact professionally.
My professor has a very direct communication style. He is results-oriented and wants to get things done ASAP! Because of this, he can come across as impatient and demanding, especially when he is stressed.
Meanwhile, I have an initiating communication style. I am motivated by relationships and I like a more personal work environment
However, I try to adjust for our differences. I skip the small talk — a smile and a “good morning!” is sufficient. Also, when I speak to him I try to stay focused on the most important points, and avoid over-explaining or rambling with extraneous details. This keeps him happy. And luckily, my teammates provide me with enough conversation to keep me happy.
Whether we lead or follow, we will have to work with many different communication styles. What is most important though, is that we share the same vision. A leader doesn’t have to be perfect, but the best leaders communicate a vision worth following, and the best followers follow the vision.
Effective communication bridges the gap between leaders and followers. It should be efficient, clear, and individualized.
Efficient communication means that you avoid interrupting others’ focus; it means you are proactive about answering questions and solving problems on your own.
Clear communication means that you prioritize clarity with tools like repetition and paraphrasing. It means that you have the audacity to speak up and ask questions to prevent misunderstanding.
Individualized communication means that you notice and accommodate different communication styles.
These are all communication skills worth practicing whether you are a follower, or a leader, or Leader-in-Training.
Come join us at our next meeting where you get to learn more about communication and leadership
-Written by Sarah Tang, SAA of Women L.E.A.D. Toastmasters