You’ve got to be able to lead a team right? You’ve gone to considerable lengths to hone your leadership skills both at University and in your jobs. You know that by the time the interview comes along you will be able to demonstrate that you are a born leader. That’s one big tick in the interviewers box isn’t it? Well, maybe not. Perhaps “followership” is the next big “must have”?
Don’t stop reading! More students have told me that they have had negative feedback from employers to the effect that they have not demonstrated that they can work within a team, than have told me that they were criticised for lack of leadership skills. This shouldn’t be a surprise. What does an employer want you to do when you start work? Project lead the building of new flood defences for London? Lead the multi-national team of bankers, accountants, tax advisors and lawyers working on a massive corporate take-over? Surely, at least run the redundancy programme for all the employees about to be shed by the BBC and HSBC? Well no, actually you won’t be expected to do any of that. Try thinking small cog in (hopefully) well-oiled machine and you’ll be much nearer to the truth. So, if the employer doesn’t actually want a ready-made leader stepping enthusiastically out of university what is it looking for?
What is this about if not leadership?
It involves being able to work unselfishly with others without having a personal agenda. A job needs to be done and a group of people need to cooperate together to achieve the tasks. These tasks will build together, (just like building blocks) until the work is completed. So how are you going to go about showing that you have these skills of co-operation?
1. Being prepared to do the piece of work you have been assigned to the best of your ability (and without complaining), even if you think it is below you, or it’s just plain boring.
When you start work it’s likely that your employer is going to want to “try you out”, to make sure that you can work with that degree of unfailing accuracy and attention to detail you talked about at interview. You might find yourself doing something very mundane. Can you demonstrate at interview that you are likely to do this well. Think about times when you rolled up your sleeves (metaphorically or actually) and just got on with it, not for thanks, but because “it” needed to be done.
2. Noticing if there is a problem and taking some action to resolve it.
You might just need to draw the issue to someone’s attention. It will be important to do that in a non-judgemental and collaborative way. You might have spotted someone else’s mistake. We all make mistakes and how you react in this situation may dictate how you are treated when you make a slip yourself. The real team player mentions the issue to the person who has made the error first and does not “tell tales” where this can be avoided. If at interview you create the impression of naked and ruthless ambition you’re going to cast doubt on your ability to interact positively with your team members.
3. Offering to help others in the team.
This isn’t just about offering to take work from the team leader it might be about offering to get the secretary or administrator lunch or a coffee. A team is just that, a group of people working together on a common task. Each member of the team should be equally valued and respected for his or her contribution. If the busiest person is the most junior in pay or status terms and you have some capacity to help, then how are you going to react? If you demonstrate at interview that you’re unduly status conscious then you are not going to convince anyone that you’ll offer help wherever it’s needed.
4. Knowledge sharing.
If a task is to be achieved in the most efficient way possible then this is important. If an individual fails to share everything he/she knows which might be relevant, then inevitably things will not progress as smoothly as they might have done. Holding onto some piece of information, or an idea, to produce it after there has been a problem in a “If only you’d asked me” sort of way is not a good idea! Try demonstrating this unselfishness by talking about some collaborative piece of work you did at university, or perhaps you’ll want to talk about how you have both been mentored and have mentored students. I’m often struck by the number of student applications I see where the student has acted as a mentor, I’m not sure I have seen one talking about being a mentee!
5. Working the hours when you need to.
The good team player neither rushes off enthusiastically at the end of a day leaving everyone else still slaving away, not stays unnecessarily late in the office. Most employers want you there to do the job, but don’t expect you to move into the office when there is nothing to be done. Boasting about how you always the last to quit any task isn’t necessarily creating the impression of that collaborative and flexible employee the organisation might be looking for.
So, this teamwork thing isn’t necessarily as straightforward as you thought! Organisations are becoming less hierarchical and old concepts of team leadership are being eroded. Most employers are looking for you to demonstrate that you will slot in and be an unselfish and cooperative co-worker. Now you need to set about proving through the application process that you are the person to do this.
With thanks to Rebecca Fielding of Gradconsult who introduced me to the concept of Followership.