The Best Leaders Have Employees Who Would Follow Them Anywhere

I have read countless tomes about what makes an effective leader. Words like motivational, challenging and inspirational are thrown around a lot. So are theories ranging from the need for emotional intelligence to principles of innovation and resilience.


But there is a simpler way to judge who makes a great leader: the number of people who would follow him or her out the door.

I felt that unwavering loyalty at a recent farewell party for a veteran colleague. Amid the toasts and speeches, the stories of triumphant and difficult times shared together over the years, his former employees conveyed how deeply he had touched their lives and made work fun and engaging. They weren’t simply going to miss him, they were going to stay in touch. Quite a few indicated they would happily work for him again, wherever he landed.

Leaders with loyal followers are ones who set high standards and push for better-than-average results. But they also understand that results are achieved not because they have the perfect strategy or know how to give orders, but because the people who work for them feel empowered to do their very best.

Anu Shukla says she didn’t know this when she started her career in the technology industry 17 years ago as vice president of marketing and product development at Compuware/Uniface Corp.

"I thought I would force my will on people and make them follow me whether they wanted to or not," she says. "I didn’t understand that my employees were the prize stallions and my job was to unblock things for them and help them succeed."

As she jumped to jobs at different high-tech companies, Ms. Shukla says she realized she would get far better results if instead of barking orders, she got her employees to understand and embrace her ideas. She also listened to their contributions. Such collaboration proved essential when she launched Rubric, an Internet software company based in San Mateo, Calif.

Equally essential was the lesson she learned in how to retain her most talented employees — by acknowledging her dependence on them. "It was a very competitive time in the technology industry, with companies all stealing talent from each other," she recalls. "I saw the value of working with people over time and making sure they stuck with me."

As a result, many of the managers who worked with her at Rubric, which she sold for $366 million in 2000 when the company had revenues of just $7 million, had worked for her before at other companies.

When she told former Rubric staffers two years ago that she needed volunteers to do market research and to write a business plan for a new idea, a dozen people agreed to help. "I said I could offer a desk and a phone, and they showed up," she says.

Today, she still works with a number of her longstanding colleagues at the start-up, RubiconSoft, in Foster City, Calif. Rubric’s former CFO and its former vice president of marketing, who both had worked with Ms. Shukla at three other companies, even invested in the new venture.

Ted Mihara, Rubric’s former western regional sales manager, is now RubiconSoft’s vice president of sales. "I want a leader who makes my own work efforts easier, and Anu’s intellect, competitiveness and great customer skills are very compelling," he says.

Ken Kousky, president and CEO of IP3, an IT marketing and software-development company in Saginaw, Mich., says he never actively recruits employees to follow him because he doesn’t want to take talent from his former bosses. But they end up joining him anyway because of the relationships he sustains with past colleagues.

"They contact me," he says. "There is a self-selection process that keeps some people working together because they fit."

Mr. Kousky hasn’t surrounded himself entirely with former subordinates, however. "If you do that, you get very entrenched and stuck in your old ways," he says.

Leaders, he believes, must actively fashion staffs that are diverse in backgrounds and talents. "Diversity spurs creativity, inventiveness and new insights," he says.

Susan Schwartz felt an immediate affinity with Mr. Kousky when he interviewed her 15 years ago for a job at Wave Technologies, a St. Louis-based management-technology training company he had founded.

"He was sitting on the floor and instead of doing a formal interview, he asked me to join him and help him write a new training course," she says.

She signed on as a part-time trainer but soon was managing regional training efforts, and then national sales and international marketing efforts. "He always pushes me to the next level," she says.

When she left Wave after about a decade, she kept in touch with Mr. Kousky, and a few months ago rejoined him as vice president of business development at IP3.

"There’s trust between us," she says, "and he has charisma."
• E-mail comments to [email protected].



Carol Hymowitz writes about leadership challenges and conflicts three Tuesdays a month in In The Lead. Carol conceived the column partly out of her experiences as a manager at the Journal, as bureau chief in Pittsburgh and now as a senior editor in New York, where she supervises a group of reporters in several cities. In her 20 years with the Journal as a reporter and editor, she has covered many industries — including steel, retail, banking, and manufacturing — as well as management and workplace issues.

"Given the technological and global complexity of business today, managers must make decisions at an ever faster pace while motivating others in new ways," she says. "Yet management and leadership remain an art rather than a science, dependent as ever on relationships among people. I try to illustrate that through the experiences of myself and others."

Carol says she sees the column as a conversation with readers. To contribute your perceptions and opinions, e-mail Carol at [email protected].

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