Monday, June 21 2021

How do we spend our time?

What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days? *

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Thursday, November 26 2020

The F word

Followership – it’s a word that can elicit strong reactions. I’ve heard disbelief: “is that actually a thing?”. Confusion: “but I thought you said leadership” even anger “I’m NOT a follower!”. While some are almost embarrassed to confess “I think I follow well…”

When my kids were young they went to Cirkidz every Saturday morning. They learned a whole lot of skills: juggling, tumbling, riding a unicycle. They also learned performance and, just as importantly, audience, skills. How to be confident in front of other people, accepting applause graciously, taking turns, enjoying others’ skills, sitting still. They learned to work together, to combine ideas to make something better, to give and receive instruction. They learned to be aware of what was going on around them, to see risks for themselves and others and to speak up: “falling!”. They literally learned to support each other.

Everyone had opportunities to perform, everyone was in the audience. Both performers and audience were active participants.

This is like leading and following in organisations, everyone can, and should, do both. There is never a time when everyone is leading; leadership needs followership or it isn’t leadership at all (just as an audience needs performers). Likewise, followership needs leadership. Followership is not merely doing what you’re told without thought or question. It is actively participating in a leadership relationship and process. Followership makes space for leadership and it steps into the spaces made by leaders. It is fluid, we move between leadership and followership in our work relationships.

Organisations need good followers and good leaders. Taking followership seriously challenges how we often think about workplace relationships and roles – that could be why reactions to it are so strong.

Monday, October 19 2020

What does good followership look like in a crisis?

Followership is not following blindly. Followers choose to follow, so they need to make this choice wisely and with good judgement. Here are five ways to identify effective followership

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Saturday, September 28 2019

Why followership? Answer 3

My third answer to the question “Why followership” rests on my values and, I think, on my childhood experiences.

I moved a lot as a child. My father’s ambition – for which I’m grateful: he moved beyond the confines of a small coal mining village and across the world – kept the family on the move. By the time I finished primary school I’d lived in three countries, 9 houses and attended 5 schools. This made be very good at being the “new person”.

Actually, I hated being the new person. I tend to be introverted and as a child I was painfully shy. I got very good at working out how they do things here – excellent training for someone interested in how organisations and the people in them work! I was also mindful of those who were left out (it could so easily be me) and tried to include them.

Add a strong dose of Sunday School and some core values develop:

  • Everyone is valuable
  • Those with title or status or power are not intrinsically more important than those without.
  • No one should be left out.

Organisations (whether work, school or wherever) need everyone’s contribution, not everyone plays the same role. We can place too much emphasis on leadership. Good things happen when everyone plays an active role which shifts and moves. This is a dance of leading and following, of stepping up and stepping back. What followers do in the leadership relationship and process and what effective followership looks like and contributes is something I find fascinating.

Why followership? Answer 2

Why followership? Here is a second answer…

I worked in a large unit in an Australian university. I reported to the Director and for various reasons the person who filled that role changed often. I reported to six people who were appointed to, or acted in, the Director role over a period of four years.

While the Director’s office door was revolving, the unit’s work went on. Sometimes we worked in collaboration with the Director (and sometimes we worked in collaboration to engage with the Director as little as possible). It was often difficult for the managers within the unit and for the team members they led.

But the work got done, plans were made and implemented, targets were met, stakeholders were communicated with. Could the unit’s work have been done better, more productively, and with less angst if there had been consistent, high quality leadership and support? Yes of course. However, this lack didn’t prevent good work and good outcomes.

There has to be more to organisational success than good leadership. I think we over emphasise the importance of the manager or the leader. We don’t pay enough attention to what the followers do in order to get good work done.

That’s why I find followership fascinating and why I’m researching what impact effective followership has on organisations and sharing the importance of followership in professional development workshops.

Why followership? Answer 1

Why followership? I’m often asked this when I talk to people about my doctoral studies, the research I’m doing and the workshops I run. There are at least three answers to the question. Here is one of them…

My first full time job after finishing uni was as a management trainee in a large retail group. My Arts degree knowledge of English literature and political theory may not have been the most practical preparation for this role. I learned lots. The ladies I worked with were patient with me and were (mostly) happy to be “managed” while letting me know when I didn’t know what I was doing.

One incident stands out. One of the team had been a manager - doing a similar job to the one I was training for and she had recently decided not to continue in that role. She knew how to do things that I hadn’t learned yet and one day I needed some technical help. I asked her what I needed to do, she walked me through it, and the job got done. All was well. Except that I was reprimanded by a more senior manager. Apparently, the person I’d gone to had mentioned to her colleagues that I’d asked for her help. (no, still can’t see the problem). It seemed that I’d violated a rule about “us” and “them”. (Oh, the hierarchy thing…)

Even at the time, when I was very inexperienced, it didn’t make sense to me that managers and staff shouldn’t work together. That managers, especially new managers, couldn’t know everything and that the people with experience knew a great deal. It never occurred to me that asking for help could “reduce my standing”.

I’ve had many jobs since and worked with lots of people, as their manager, as a team member, reporting to unit directors and CEs, and as a colleague seeking to influence without positional authority. I still believe that the title means much less than the ability to listen, and learn, and work together whether a leader or a follower.

That’s why I find followership fascinating

Sunday, September 30 2018

Tying it all together

A small group working together to build something complex… I took this picture during the early installation of Chiharu Shiota’s work at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It struck me that it is a lovely image of how a lot of good work is done in organisations.

The artists have a shared goal. To achieve it they work together - or alone - moving and helping each other as the work demands. It’s difficult to see who is following and who is leading at any time, indeed those roles seem to swap. There is cooperation and collaboration even though as an observer it is difficult to see the individuals: they are shrouded by the net they are creating. It is impossible to know who tied which knot. Steadily, quietly, the work is done and the complexity and mystery grow.

three artists tying red yarn to make a large net

Sunday, May 27 2018

All you need is ….

A royal wedding and a speak truth to power sermon focussed our attention on love this week. Bishop Michael Curry asked the wedding congregation (and the world) to consider the implications of businesses and governments acting with love. Not something soft and pretty but difficult and strong. Evidence at the Australian banking royal commission would certainly be different!

Closer to home this week I happened across Associate Professor Tammy Steeves and colleagues’ approach to kindness in science “an inclusive approach that fosters diversity, respect, well-being and openness, leading to better science outcomes”. Or more bluntly “everyone here is smart and kind – don’t distinguish yourself by being otherwise”.

I also spent 40 minutes in the school principal’s office. At this point other parents of year 8 boys will either be relieved that it wasn’t them or be smiling and nodding sympathetically. Parents of young men will reassure me that this too will pass. A group of us, including my son, had a very firm, but kind and clear, discussion about appropriate classroom behaviour.

The Beatles insisted all we need is love. But not without love’s harder edged sibling - Respect.

Wednesday, February 1 2017

It's not personal

My 16 year old daughter achieved a career milestone this week – she lost her first job. As I reassured her that it wasn’t personal I realised that was exactly the problem.

A change in franchisee and management arrangements mean that my daughter and a number of her co-workers won’t be needed to fill casual shifts. No argument with that – managers can arrange their casual staffing however they choose. But - and it’s a big but - those who will lose their casual roles weren’t told. After attending an (unpaid) staff meeting, being reassured that they would likely remain employed, and in any case that no decisions would be made until everyone who wanted to stay on was interviewed, nothing… until she asked her current manager (who is leaving) what was going on.

My daughter and her friends will graduate from casual jobs- a couple of shifts a week for pocket money- to “real” work. Work where they will be much more responsible to their customers, employers, managers, co-workers, and, in time, those they supervise. We who are older and wiser will no doubt bemoan the work skills of generation new. We will criticise their self-centeredness, lack of communication and empathy, and poor professional skills. But how will they learn if these skills aren’t modelled to them in their very first experiences of employment? It should be personal!

Monday, January 2 2017

A New Year’s pause

At midnight the bell tolled. Steam and smoke wafted among the trees and a small fire burned. A square of bright light spilled from the shrine, illuminating the faces of the first few people gathered.

Last year I spent New Year in Japan. A highlight was visiting our friends’ neighbourhood Shinto shrine just before midnight. No fireworks, no party (the evening of New Year’s Day is the time to eat, drink and celebrate with family). Teenagers mucked around too close to the fire which burned to respectfully dispose of religious charms and symbols displayed at home during the previous year. Neighbours chatted quietly as they joined the growing line shuffling toward the shrine to make their first prayer of the year.

I liked the idea of making a prayer to begin the year rather than a resolution. Pausing to think for a moment about what we really hope for in the next year, for ourselves, our friends and families, our work lives, and our communities is a good way to begin. This pause gives us meaningful and significant ambitions to guide our decisions and actions rather than New Year’s resolutions which often skip straight to how we are going to change rather than why.

As we left in the cold and dark we moved out of the shrine complex onto the main road and into the suburb. The line of people had grown, down the street past the bus depot and the restaurant, past the vending machines and toward the intersection. Hundreds of metres of ordinary folk, taking time to name their deepest hopes for the year to come.

Friday, November 18 2016

Breaking new

Half a tiny eggshell. Blue on the outside, white on the inside and smaller than my thumbnail.

Thinking about successful transition is something I’m doing in my professional work at the moment; in particular students’ moving into university. The research and practice in this area indicates that part of the process is about getting information about where things are and how we do things here. Part is developing the skills necessary to navigate and succeed. And part is about becoming someone different. It seems to me this is true of all the transitions we make. It also occurs to me that doing something new, no matter how exciting, as an individual or as a group means things will be different and some aspects of the past may need to break. Even if they were as perfect as an egg.

In organisations we rush to the next new project. We often pay insufficient regard to what was good but is no longer needed and we don’t acknowledge what people are leaving behind in order to move forward.

Transitions from school to university, from worker to student and back again, into or out of relationships, between illness and health, growing up and growing older, or from egg to nest are complicated. Successful transition includes recognising what is changing, being left behind, or breaking as well as what is new.

Friday, July 29 2016

It’s a curious thing

I’ve spent time over the first half of this year being curious. Wondering how things will fall, exploring options and having conversations without a specific end in mind beyond finding things out. And, as is the way I’ve found when I start paying attention to something, the idea of curiosity has popped up in a variety of places.

While not a big fan of the self help genre, I have enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She says that creative living is “living a live that is driven more by curiosity than by fear”.

At the recent AHRI HR in Focus conference one of the speakers urged us to stay curious. My father, a chemistry teacher in his first career, had a classroom mantra “Always ask why.”; something he didn’t always appreciate from his elder daughter! But asking why, and then asking it again, helps us find clarity. This is something parenting has taught me: Always, always ask “why?”, or “what do you mean?” or “where did you hear that?” before answering a question, because very often the answer that springs to mind does not respond to the question your small person is actually asking.

I’ve spent 6 months setting conversations going, exploring possibilities, applying for roles and being disappointed (or relieved) not to be shortlisted, asking “why?”, “why not?”, “why me?” but most of all being curious about where things would lead. And this is what happened…

A one-month opportunity to analyse survey findings and feedback and report to a senior university committee grew into a 10 month contract to complete a really interesting, organisation-wide student orientation project with talented and experienced colleagues. I’ll complete this at the beginning of the 2017 academic year, leaving behind structures, documents and ways of working that will, I plan, be of benefit for future orientation cycles. This timing is perfect as it gives me an opening to begin PhD studies in 2017; something I’ve been thinking about for more than 15 years but haven’t been in a position to pursue.

I’m now very clear and excited about what I am doing into the first quarter of next year. I’m continuing to have conversations to gather advice, find out what I don’t know and make connections. I’m applying to undertake a PhD, and I can see some of the ways these studies and what I will learn, write about and share will help me shape my future career.

There is the saying that “curiosity killed the cat”. Curiosity in my experience doesn’t kill but opens up possibilities.

Sunday, May 15 2016

Magpie choices

Almost grown magpies always amuse me. Nearly as large as their parents, they squawk and fuss, incessantly demanding bugs.

Four months ago I received unexpected news at work that significantly changed my focus and priorities for the rest of this year and beyond. As a result I’ve been more aware than usual about the choices that I make.

There have been choices about what to pursue hard and strategically, and what to let go. About how to spend time and energy so I look after myself as well as supporting others. Choices about what I will do so I finish well and am well positioned as I begin something new. I’ve made choices about the sorts of conversations I have and who I have them with. Some of these conversations have been about new opportunities and some about how things are going today. Many have been full of excitement and possibility. Others have been about the difficulties and sadness that comes along with forced change -but not too many of these. I know bird shit when I see it, I don’t need to go out of my way to step in it!

When we find ourselves in a place we didn’t expect we always get to answer the question “Will I be a teenage magpie?” Making a lot of noise, demanding others’ attention, resisting change and finding ways to argue… I’ve chosen to find my own bugs, sing my song and fly.

Saturday, March 26 2016

Behave yourself

The photo in the exhibition of student work took me by surprise. There I was! Snapped while walking and talking in a place I often pass through, on a day I don’t remember. It felt very odd seeing myself, for a moment, as a stranger might.

So what did I see?


We don’t often see ourselves as others do. It made me think of another moment that shifted how I’d seen something familiar. I read “be have” and read it again before realising that a line break meant I was actually reading “behave”. Turns out the word could have come from Old English meaning to contain. How we behave could be how we be with what we have.

I’ve received a number of positive comments recently on my professional response to a tricky work situation. My reaction has been that it’s nice my colleagues noticed, but more fundamentally some surprise. After all, what did they expect? How we respond when things are difficult should be consistent with the way we carry ourselves whatever the circumstances. Heightened by the situation of course, but still consistent. And any significant gap between the “good times” me and the “difficult times” me would point, I think, to a lack of authenticity.

How do you be have?

  • Jaimee Young is the photographer, undertaking undergraduate studies at the University of South Australia. The image is reproduced with her permission. The reflections on the glass are a result of my (lack of ) photographic skills not hers!

Friday, December 18 2015

Sing your song

At the end of every year, the gospel choir I belong to sings at the Adelaide railway station. The sound rolls down the concourse as trains full of “last week before Christmas” workers pull in. It’s great fun; the Victorian building with its barrel ceiling echoes wonderfully, many commuters smile, take video and sing along.

A choir seems to me a lot like a work team that’s performing well. We have a conductor without whom we lose our way and sound ragged. He leads the choir but his whole purpose is to make us sound good, not to draw attention to himself. And he needs the choir as much as we need him, or he’s just some guy with music in his head waving his arms around.

We have a common goal and we each have a part to sing. As accurately as possible, following direction, and with the group, but also taking personal responsibility. When we don’t and we rely too heavily on those around us we literally go flat! From time to time there are soloists who sing something different and unique before joining the group again. These aren’t always the same people, nor are they necessarily those with the “best” voice. But everyone who takes a risk to sing out is supported by the rest of us.

Singing is part of my life and part of my Christmas celebrations. I hope that through the year you will find your song and likeminded people to sing it with!

Friday, December 11 2015

Hidden treasure in plain sight

I know a fabulous shop that sells second hand clothing on consignment. Some of my favourite outfits have come from there. And my best buys have been things I found when I wasn’t really looking. I once bought a pair of shoes (that instantly make anything I wear with them look better) when I was really buying rhubarb!

I’m beginning to think that we find the good stuff, or the good stuff finds us, when we are open minded about it. Things I’ve particularly enjoyed doing professionally haven’t necessarily been a major part of my day job. They have been things I’ve done in my own time and arisen because I’ve had the attitude “that looks interesting, I could do that” without it being part of any grand plan. As one example: I tutored an undergraduate business subject earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed facilitating workshops with students each week. I learned lots too. About being a casual academic when my usual role is a professional university staff member, about another university, about students as individuals not Equivalent Fulltime Student Units.

A colleague researches in human resources and one of his areas of interest has been the element of luck in job search. Luck seems to be something that finds me when I’m looking but, paradoxically, not looking too hard. Perhaps I see things when I’m in a “lucky” frame of mind that I just don’t see or pay attention to when I’m not. And “luck” doesn’t seem to happen without effort.

I’m certainly not arguing that it is all down to hard work, or good luck. Bad things do happen to good people and as George Monbiot observed “if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” I do think though that we are more inclined to take optimistic chances, to say yes to opportunities, and to see fabulous shoes when we are shopping for rhubarb, when we are open to the possibility.

Friday, October 30 2015

25 not out

I celebrated a milestone this week. 25 years with the one organisation. This has crept up on me, indeed I checked my HR record thinking someone must have made a mistake.

I’ve been ambivalent about it. Much like the comments I’ve received my feelings have ranged from “that’s awesome!” through “Really? You don’t look old enough” down to “haven’t had a life”.

I decided to embrace the moment. After all if the University was going to throw a party and offer me a rather lovely gift, it seemed churlish not to attend to accept it. So I went, caught up with colleagues I haven’t seen in years, met interesting folk I’d never met, heard a little about other people’s proudest professional and personal achievements (everyone had a life!) drank champagne and had smiley photos taken.

Coincidently, on the same day I attended the AHRI HR in Focus Workshop on workforce planning facilitated by Julie Sloan. One point Julie made was that workforce planning needs managers to understand their staff members’ career stage. Whether each individual sees themselves as new, mid or end of career in their role, and in the organisation. A key point is that it is really important not to make assumptions about where others are at, based on their age or their managers’ limited understanding of their lives. This of course requires conversations that are deep, respectful and trusting.

So, 25 years. I’ll take it, gratefully, but don’t jump to conclusions about my next 25!

Friday, October 16 2015

More than a one trick pony

My teenage daughter just returned from three weeks away on school exchange. While she was gone the house was quieter, and tidier! But most of all I noticed that as a family our interactions were different when she wasn’t here, as were her occasional long distance conversations with us by phone or text.

This happens in the workplace too. Group dynamics shift depending on who is in the office. And meetings can change their vibe completely with the addition or subtraction of a colleague. You know which colleague! The one who always speaks first, regardless of how much they know about the situation. The person who invariably find problems, or solutions. The colleague who brings different ideas and points of view together. The one who rarely speaks but is always worth listening to….

Of course we need a mixture of styles and approaches. That’s why we work so often in groups. But if we get stuck in our preferred style, the way we regularly respond may not be helpful to our work mates or to maintain our professional brand. Continual optimism, regardless of circumstance, can be seen as naiveté, always finding (real) problems can be interpreted as being unsupportive. Optimism and seeing risks are both valuable, but not every time we speak on every topic.

Rather than jumping into playing a role that feels as comfortable as a pair of old jeans, taking time to think about what is needed by the group, and what we can offer, lets us take a more proactive and constructive approach. This may mean speaking up sooner if your tendency is to wait and listen; the group may need to hear what you have to say right now. It may also mean holding back and letting less forthcoming colleagues find the space to contribute. Likewise, it might mean suggesting a solution as well as identifying a problem.

It’s lovely to have my daughter home, but I hope to maintain some of the changes her absence prompted: independence and problem solving, less sibling “bickering as entertainment” and space for each member of the family to do their own thing, individually and together.

Friday, August 14 2015

Head, hands, heart

When did you last learn something valuable? How did you learn it? What did you do with it?

We tend to divide things up and label them. Seeing intellectual (head) learning or education as one thing while practical (hand) learning or experience as another. I helped behind the scenes at a graduation ceremony this week: lots of proud graduates, families and friends, buzz of excitement and anticipation. And many reminders in the speeches given that university graduates are expected to do something with their learning, to forge careers and in large ways and small improve their communities.

What I think makes head and hand learning valuable is heart.

Heart is the place where engagement lives. It is what drives a theoretical mathematician to work toward an elegant solution. Masterchef winners demonstrate knowledge and technique (and amazing unflappability under pressure) but their dish is deemed a success when it also reflects the cook’s personality and creativity and nurtures those who eat it.

Learning and dreaming and planning are all good and necessary, but nothing changes until our goals are achieved step by step - and with unplanned surprises. That won’t happen unless our “heart is in it”.

Saturday, June 27 2015

What do we want? Leadership! What do we need? Management.

Problems at work? Poor leadership is often the diagnosis and leadership development the prescription.

But it turns out transformational leadership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I recently heard Professor Deanne Den Hartog speak on research within organisations that shows charismatic or transformational leadership is useful when there is a crisis, or when followers are not confident in their abilities to do the job. When we are lost or confused we look to someone to provide direction. But when the crisis is resolved, or when followers are confident and capable, this style of leadership either doesn’t improve team performance and at worst is detrimental.

If leadership is not what is needed, management might be. Management, as I hope my tutorial students remember in their exam, is “the process of getting things done, effectively and efficiently, with and through other people”. Managers are in the people business! Good mangers have followers who will work with them to achieve agreed goals. So to be a good manager I’d argue that relationships are vital. Managers need to be human, they need to like people (without needing to always be liked) they need to be respectful and to behave consistently in ways that mean they are respected. It sounds a lot like basic good manners and social skills.

Managing oneself and others is a skill that is not as common as followers would like. But when done well it can be mistaken for leadership!

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