Following: The First Step to Leading

By: Tamara Lucas Copeland

One small-staff exec shares why you first need to follow in order to lead better.

When my son was six or seven years old, I noticed that he almost always followed the lead of his friends. One day, I took him aside to explain that he could, and should, try to lead sometime. With great wisdom, he said, "Mom, someone has to follow. Everyone can't be a leader." Years later, his quiet style of leadership is emerging, but early in his life he had already learned the importance of following.

My son's lesson illustrates that there are many steps to becoming an effective leader. Some leaders new to an organization begin by reading the strategic plan, the operational plan, and every document that the organization has produced over the last year, three years, or five years. Others meet with the staff and the board, and then there are some who contend that immersing themselves in the latest professional papers and the thinking of academic leaders in the field is the first step toward strong leadership. While all of these are important, I believe nothing is as powerful or as important as going out to meet with your constituents in their space. In fact, throughout my 20-plus years leading membership organizations, I have learned that an effective leader leads first by following. In order to follow, you must know what your constituents need and want.

Step One: Get Out and Ask Them

It might seem obvious, but I'm surprised by the number of leaders who rarely or never meet with constituents. The visit is important both in establishing a relationship and in learning about your organization from the perspective of the users of your products and services.

What do you want from that first meeting? You want to learn about the individuals and what their motivations are. What are their professional goals? What do they see as the role of your organization in helping to achieve those goals? You want to leave the meeting having established yourself and your organization as a viable and necessary partner for your constituent's success.

You want to use this first meeting to establish the foundation for a long-lasting relationship. Beforehand, learn as much as you can about the individual with whom you are meeting: her professional and academic background, family, hobbies—it's all important. Review the organization's website. Know how it is publicly framing the organization's work, accomplishments, and goals. Ask your board and staff members to define what the relationship has been with this constituent. How has the organization experienced your organization?

Because this individual is a constituent, your objectives must be similar. You have to know enough about the constituent and her work to start the conversation and be able to lead it toward your shared vision and goals. The question becomes one of strategy: Is your strategic vision complementary? How can your organization work with your constituent to achieve the shared vision that will ultimately lead to the common goal you both share: success in your field?

Step Two: Follow Up

After the meeting is over, make sure you follow up with the constituent. The thank-you message isn't old fashioned. It's expected and appreciated, particularly when it is used not only to show that you valued the time and guidance that was shared but also to restate the actions you will take to accomplish what was discussed. Then, take the steps you said you would. Follow-up is critical in establishing your credibility, your sense of responsibility, and your capacity to be an agent for change. Follow-up should occur within a reasonable timeframe and should be visible, or made visible, to the constituent.

Over time, as you meet with multiple constituents, patterns of service needs will emerge, economies of scale will be suggested, and the broader needs of the community will slowly take shape. The relationship that you start on that day will help you to align your visions and your work. Your role as a partner in the day-to-day work and as a leader for a long-term strategy will grow from these early conversations. You are building a solid foundation for work that will continue for years. By following constituents' guidance and assimilating that into a larger vision, you will emerge as a leader who is grounded in the membership and working toward a commonly shared goal.

Tamara Lucas Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Small-Staff Stats

Name: Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
Location: Washington, DC
Staff Size: 7 full-time employees, 4 part-time consultants
Members: 100
Budget: $1.23 million

Tamara Lucas Copeland

Tamara Lucas Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in Washington, DC.