When Followers Become Leaders: Think-Share-Do…

They say in Iowa, “If you don’t like the weather just hang around 15 minutes. It will change.” That seems so true, not only of the weather, but business, family life, careers. Name it. The one constant in life is– change. When one of our executives approached me a couple months ago about helping out, I said, sure, no problem. You see, my career has been on the operations side. At the beginning of 2015, I made an internal move at my company to the dark side–sales. I was told that the Vice President had resigned from my old department and he wanted to know if I could come in for 30 to 60 days while they found a replacement, and then I could go back to my new role on the sales team. Of course, I agreed. It made sense. The team knew me and the clients knew me. After all, I was the former Director of Operations in that very division. The one thing that was different was I had just read a book by L. David Marquet, “Turn the Ship Around!” A true story of turning followers into leaders.

So now that I was in this position and I was the “D” (decision maker) I decided to put the principles of this book to the test.  The leader-follower leadership is alive and well in this country. Most companies have what I like to call the “Walking Dead” approach. We tell our employees to check their brains at the door and do what they are told.  I’m guilty of it! But I wanted to see a change. I wanted to see a community of leaders in my division, not one of followers. A community of creative, engaged, thinking leaders. So I, like Mr. Marquet, vowed not to give an order. Instead, I brought the management team of one of the four departments I was responsible for in and challenged them. The productivity in that department floated between 40 and 50%. In my former role as a Director, I did not have interaction with this department which is one of the reasons I tested this with them. I told them I wanted to know what they intended to do to hit 60% productivity this month. They told me it had not been done and they didn’t think it could be done. So I pushed and said if it were possible what would we have to do? I sent them away to plan, “think” and then come back and tell me what they “intended” to do. (That word is important, read the book.)


They came back with a plan. I listened and then I said now go and do it! I told them I would not be following up on them. They asked how I would know if they are doing what they promised. I told them the numbers will go up! A couple days later they came back in and said they were nervous and they wanted me to tell them what to do. I asked why, and they said, then they can say if this doesn’t work they were just doing what they were told. I laughed and thanked them for their honesty but pushed them back out to the floor and told them I had faith in what they came up with.  Guess what? That’s right — productivity started creeping up! They started celebrating the progress. I saw bright, colorful scoreboards going up. They ended the month at 62% productivity! In fact, they even exceeded their revenue goal by $75,000.00 — a first there, also. They brought me the bonus plan that was created in 2012 (the date was on it), and said they haven’t had to use it and wanted to make sure they were calculating the bonus checks right. We were on to something.

Throughout the month we would have short little “think out loud” sessions. I started returning problems unsolved and would say things like, “What do you think I’m thinking?” or “If you were me what would you do?” I am now using this approach with my entire division and we are all projecting to hit goal this month. Productivity has now exceeded 65%. People are happy, engaged, thinking.  This approach and this book reminded me of something I learned from a business mentor long ago. In life, you have owners and you have renters. Get people to contribute, make decisions, put the onus of responsibility on them and they become owners! You see most people won’t argue their own data. I know one thing — we will continue to build a community of leaders in my division. I believe, as a leader, if I ever leave this team and it falls apart, I did not do my job. By the way, this interim position is no longer interim. They asked me to stay in the role due to the success we are having. I have two to thank: L. David Marquet, and my team. These two deserve all the credit. I was the match, but my team added the fire and they executed.  I am so proud of my team and my company. Maybe I can come back in six months and share an update. Until then–THINK, SHARE, DO!


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