August 26, 2009

I love the concept of partnership from Ira Chaleff’s book The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and for our Leaders.  I’ve written about partnership the most in my articles “Accept Responsibility for Yourself,” and “What Type of Followers do You Have?”  But I need to elaborate even more.

Partner followers are purposeful actors.  They behave as if there is no substitute for performance, so they give their best effort all the time.  But they also challenge processes, policies, and behaviors that either constrain performance or are contrary to the purpose.

Is there any reason YOU would not want all partner followers?

When I ask this question to groups, most people have no problem with the give 110% effort part.  But many balk at the thought of a follower challenging.  If you have a problem with the thought of being challenged by a follower, I would encourage you to take a hard look at your power paradigm.  Are you building a culture of performance around the shared purpose, or a culture of personality around your authority

True partner followers challenge the leader, but they also assume responsibility for correcting the situation they are concerned about.  The rhetoric of partnership sounds something like this: “This does not seem to be working and I think we can do better.  Have you considered these alternatives/options?  Here is what I would be willing to do to help.”

Partner followers don’t “dump” on leaders.  The rhetoric of the individualist sounds something like this: “This sucks (and so do you) and YOU need to fix it.  What’s wrong with you?”

Please don’t be offended by the individualist!  Take the fact that they are complaining as GOOD news.  As I’ve written here before, if your employees never disagree or dissent, that is bad news for you.  You need to hear their complaints, but you also need transform complaints into more effective behavior.  Help your followers learn to assume responsibility for becoming part of the solution.

Your challenge is to develop the individualist into a true partner.  Thank them for their concern, but don’t accept the dump.  As a first step, ask for recommendations, suggestions for improvement.  See if they would be willing to work together with you on their suggestions.  When they are comfortable coming to you with suggestions, then work on encouraging them to come with actions they are willing to commit to in order to remedy their concern.  Encourge them to work autonomously to make improvements and to view you as a resource, not the source.  Be patient.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that everyone will ultimately become a partner, but I also think it is critical to behave as if anyone could become a partner.  Give everyone permission to give themselves permission.

The paradox of partnership is that even if your leader does not invite you to become a partner that does NOT relieve you of the responsibility to develop yourself as one.  I strongly believe that if you don’t learn how to practice partnership as a follower, you will NEVER learn to appreciate and nurture partnership in others when you become a leader.  I also believe that your work as a leader will be much easier, more effective, and more enjoyable if you are surrounded by true partners instead of sycophants and sheep.

You are responsible for your behavior; you are not responsible for how people respond to your behavior.   Find the courage to do the right thing.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Mike Rogers says:

    Thanks for the post Bret, I agree with what you have said. Partnerships are built when leaders 1) create trust and 2) when leaders do what I call “mine for productive conflict.” If people don’t feel comfortable in sharing how they are feeling about a direction or decision, then you are lot more inefficient as a leader.

    My question is what do you do with employees that can’t truly become partners?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mike, I appreciate your input and question. First, I think it is important to make partnership systemic. You need to hire, reward, and promote for partnership. If you hire, reward, and promote “yes” people you will send a mixed message to partners. As for folks already on board that are not developing as partners, look inside first. Is there anything you are doing to contribute to the behavior? If so, take responsibility to fix it. Then I think you need to keep your personal expectations high. Just because some is not behaving as a partner does not mean you should lower the bar. Be encouraging, but resolute. And avoid like a disease being paternal. Your job is to make sure problems get solved and systems get improved, but that does not mean YOU have to be the one doing it. Hope that helps! Thanks!! Bret

  2. Wally Bock says:

    I really like the idea of “partner follower,” Bret. You reminded me of an executive who hired me to work with his managers. One thing he did that I loved, was sit down with every new person who came into his unit. He would say something like, “Since you’re new here, you’re the person mostly likely to see the things we do that don’t make sense. Be sure to tell your boss when you do.”

    He said it created the kind of team environment he wanted. Bosses got used to being questioned, but new team members found out that there were good reasons for many of things they questioned, even while they developed the habit of speaking up. And, he said, almost every time someone new came on board, they identified something stupid that no one noticed before.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Wally, thanks for the excellent comment! The person you describe was a very wise leader. You make the key point that people were used to it, it was part of the culture and process. Great point also about how new team members can catch stuff we didn’t even think of. Thanks!! Bret

  3. Mark Ohlstrom says:

    Bret, I’ve followed your blog over the last month or so, and find it refreshing and insightful. Keep it up!

    Three and a half years ago, I re-entered the corporate world after several years as a small-business entrepreneur (and have 20+ years in the workforce). What I observe today (and what I believe fits with your current threads on engagement) is that the majority of managers and employees are not Entrepreneurial-Thinkers (ET).

    The majority of employees and managers are content to be employed, may be great problem solvers and taskmasters, and bright people. They are just not engaged, empowered, or trained to be ET’s.

    Rather, employees learn instead to be Corporate Thinkers (CT): people who may have the insight to know what is and isn’t working in the organization, but learn to not make waves, say “yes” when they want to say “no”, become proficient in their jobs, making the Performance Review process the Holy Grail on their Road to the Eternal City.

    As a result, you end up with the majority in lower and middle management who conformed their way up the ladder, and are not trained to think entrepreneurially. Therefore, they cannot perform in or pass on an OOB (Out Of the Box) culture (where all people embrace thinking OOB), and if their boss is also a CT’er, they are hesitant to go on many OOB experiences.

    Why no OOBE’s? Managers are afraid! Maybe they don’t want to really know what’s going on. And maybe they are not able to channel the negative issues into positive solutions. So many OOB-type movements end up dying on the vine.

    What it really takes is raising ET managers up the ladder who can genuinely inspire and empower their employees, who know how to promote and conduct OOBE’s in their sphere of influence, and who can take the Individualist and the CT’er, and mold them into ET’ers.

    B-schools should be important and essential cogs in the creation of ET’ers. More managers need to enroll in B-schools with strong ET components – and more schools need to place emphasis on the entrepreneurial side of management.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mark, I appreciate you following my blog, the kind words, and taking the time to share your thoughts. I think you are right on! I am in a B school, so I can tell you that people that teach in B school can be among the LEAST entrepreneurial thinkers – not to mention poor leaders and managers. But you are right, the B school SHOULD be a hub of this kind of thinking.

    Excellent observations. Thanks!!! Bret