The leader vs. the follower (who’s more important?)
Successful companies all have one thing in common: They strategically and effectively optimize their workforce.
Some of us have had the opportunity to work in some of these environments, and a lot of us have seen the negative effects of poor leadership, poor execution, and poorly managed teams. I have seen the extremes of both several times over, and one consistent issue I’ve observed is that far too often, there is only one career path available to an individual: They can either get paid more and become a leader or remain at a lower pay rate and be a follower.
I agree that this path works well in a lot of scenarios, but more often I have seen talented individuals fail because they aren’t “management material.” Even more often, I have experienced terrible leadership by individuals who were placed in a position of power simply because they put in the time, or were strong performers and were rushed into management for a pay raise.
The fact is, not all executors are going to be good leaders. The most successful companies will facilitate a career path that recognizes both individual contributors and those who are better leaders than followers.
Do you lead? Or execute?
There are two core structures of an organization: those who lead, and those who execute. The first group is there to organize, problem-solve, establish rigor in process, and maintain order. The second group is there to get things done, to produce, and to create an end result. These two roles are remarkably different, yet the lines are blurred when creating career paths and establishing value.
The majority of organizations create a hierarchy between these components where leadership is the more valuable role, and execution is the less valuable role. In this scenario, for an employee to succeed, they must eventually “graduate” from being an executor to being a leader, when in reality both are equally necessary components.
Not all executors who excel at their jobs should become leaders. The result is organizations that are upside down when it comes to the hierarchy of needs for their companies and encouraging, if not requiring, individual contributors to step away from the value they create in hopes that they are able to expand that knowledge to others as leaders.
I’d like to make the case that both roles provide essential business functions, and should thus be compensated and valued similarly.
Executors are often undervalued
The executor, or individual contributor, is a critical component of any organization. Individuals in these roles are the engine and the momentum behind any company. Following the 80/20 rule, this role accounts for 80 percent of the workforce. It is these individuals who best understand inefficiencies. They deeply understand the market, a client, and the competition. They are the intellect, the innovation, and the best source of creativity.
Few would argue the collective value of executors, however strong individual contributors are rarely positioned appropriately, and adequate career paths for these roles are often overlooked.
Organizations that don’t recognize “doers” as a critical asset and create a path for their valuable executors will lose these employees.
I’ve seen companies lose their most innovative minds this way. I’ve experienced teams homogenized for the sake of seamless career pathing. I’ve commiserated with those who have made the decision to become self-employed as a result of this barrier to progress. I have also seen leaders advocate for those individuals who would benefit from a different career path and create a role that works best for them and the organization.
“I am finally with an organization that acknowledges that my best way of advancing the company is through tactical implementation of complex strategies, and my employer lets me do just that,” says Todd Mintz, whose specialties lie with essential functions such as PPC, SEM, and the like. “With prior employers, my technical expertise was a barrier to organizational advancement, which I always found strange because bottom-line results should have been the ultimate measure as to how my performance was judged. My value had been marginalized instead of maximized.”
A career path for an executor like Mintz is certainly harder to create than that of a leader, and so, to a degree, it is understandable to see why that isn’t fought for. Many are eager to get away from “the grind” and see a role in leadership as a way to do that. But they don’t see that leadership is still a grind, it’s just a different kind of grind with its own unique challenges and values.
Leaders are often overvalued
In most cases, the 20 percent (or less) of the organization that fit into the leadership category act as protagonists. They are visionaries, unifiers, question askers, and motivators. They are problem solvers, forecasters, and planners. They are master communicators and their execution role is to bring people together, surface challenges, come up with solutions, and inspire people.
Visionaries and protagonists are easy to put on a pedestal and place a high amount of value on. As a result, leadership teams are far more immune to accountability than executors in most organizations. But leaders are most valuable when they are the most aware of their weaknesses, and embrace the balance they need in process and execution for the success of the greater good.
“The fact is, not all executors are going to be good leaders. The most successful companies will facilitate a career path that recognizes both individual contributors and those who are better leaders than followers.”
Often, to defend or hide their weaknesses, these leaders will advocate for strong structures, career paths, and develop bureaucracy that aligns with their values. If an individual has achieved leadership, they are often blindly followed. In the worst cases, I’ve seen this result in toxic cultures, systemic homogeneity, product or customer service failures, or at worst, the overall demise of an organization. Allowing poor leadership to flourish unchecked is by far one of the greatest failures of any organization.
The TV show Undercover Boss is entertaining because it shows leaders who lack empathy and understanding of employees, and their journey in discovering it. A common misconception is that leaders have to have done a job to have empathy for it, and as such have to be individual contributors who have “climbed the ranks.”
But roles and circumstances change too quickly for a leader to truly understand what doing a job is like years after they’ve done it. In some industries and roles (especially digital marketing), things change in a matter of weeks. In order to keep up, leaders must develop and maintain empathy for their teams by being deliberate in regularly asking the right questions, listening, and drawing relevant context from all aspects of their perspective.
A more balanced approach
It is easy to see how the norm has become a hierarchy of leaders and followers. Leaders are required to bring a wealth of experience to their roles, and so when we seek leadership, we look to those executors who are experienced and promote them. This makes sense and is a good practice if those individuals have natural leadership traits, or have worked hard and consciously wanted to become a leader.
However, this is not often the case. Organizations who place too much value in leadership have a tendency to become very myopic. They assume that there is one path for success for all, that there is only one way to become a leader, that there is only one path towards increasing an individual’s value to an organization. Most often, great individual contributors are forced down a path to leadership they may not want, nor have the skills or ability to succeed at, then inevitably fail.
But this is not how successful organizations operate. Just take a look at some of our nation’s most successful leadership pairs. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph; there is a long list of pairings who have created a balance between execution and ideas, between the ego and the end product. And yet somehow both parts end up on top.
Often referred to as “the visionary and the nerd” or “the idea man and the implementor,” the dyad works because each role provides balance to the other, and thus results in a successful organization that has both a vision for the future and a tangible path to achieving that vision. We can’t all be Bill Gates, but we can be deliberate in assigning value in a balanced way in our organizations. We can embrace the skills and roles of each aspect as complementary, and not let the driving agendas create conflict.
“A more ‘hands-off’ approach that clearly sets goals and boundaries, as well as the assistance any individual might need to succeed is far more efficient than the time spent on micromanagement and invasive leadership.”
Being strategic about diversity in our organizations is a great place to start. When you’re seeking diversity in race or gender across your organization, also look for diversity of perspective, and evaluate it top to bottom. Are the people at the top of the organization getting a myopic view of their corporate ecosystem as a result of leadership all being the same? Or are there voices at the table bringing a unique set of perspectives?
One of the most common symptoms of this issue in companies is in leadership meetings where the most valuable individual contributors are excluded. Of course, there are topics and privacy considerations, but so often leaders come out of these meetings and source solutions from individual contributors anyway. Or, in the case of all-hands meetings, there is a one-way update from leadership on what is happening or what should be happening, with no dialogue of any kind.
How much faster could we come to positive conclusions or problem-solve simply by having those minds in the room in the first place? How much easier would it be to give them credit for their work? How wasteful is it to spend time informing a team of people of the status they are living on a daily basis?
Creating a career path for both skillsets
We need to be deliberate in creating a career path for individual contributors.
I’ve seen incredible minds intercepted at critical points in their careers. With no path forward other than leadership, they either understand the role is not a fit for them and leave, or they shift into a role that’s not a good fit for their strengths. Often, these individuals become consultants or independent to find a better path to success. What might they have achieved if there was a career path for them to feel like their value to an organization was growing? That their unique contributions to the running of the company were equivalent to that of the leadership?
As Mintz says, “Many of my friends have become consultants because of stories similar to mine―marginalized because a leadership path wasn’t a good fit. What’s funny is that they get well-paying gigs from the sorts of companies that can’t hire or keep the right people because of internal policies and politics. If companies would make adjustments to maximize the utility of the employee assets they currently possess, they would perform better as companies.”
I agree. One of the most successful applications I’ve seen is the creation of innovation hubs. These teams typically consist of the most influential individual contributors, are supported by additional brilliant minds, and work towards a common goal of solving complex challenges or developing entirely new ideas. They bring an incredible amount of value to a company and also create aspirational roles for executors.
Not all people require a lot of leadership. Organizations that are very goal, KPI, or performance-oriented tend to have ambitious, self-motivated executors thriving in their ranks. A more ‘hands-off’ approach that clearly sets goals and boundaries, as well as the assistance any individual might need to succeed is far more efficient than the time spent on micromanagement and invasive leadership. In my experience, when you have great leaders in place, less is more.
Catering to each individual without any structure is certainly not practical or scalable, especially at entry-level positions. It is, however, easy to identify key branches in career paths that may remove options and address alternatives to what’s in place. This is more easily executed in flat and decentralized organizational structures, but can just as effectively be resolved in larger or more rigid structures. What really matters is that existing leaders listen to their employees, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and ensure that a progression plan is one that both they and the organization will benefit from.
No matter the size or stage of an organization’s growth, with balanced vision and execution in place, there is a shortened path to success, no matter the size of the company, idea, or industry. When we place value on each individual’s greatest skills and contributions and let them develop on a broad path, we allow the greatest potential to be reached for one and for all.