7 Quick Tips for building a "fan base" as a young leader...

With changing cultural trends, the rise of the knowledge worker, and technology-catalyzed speed of ramp-up, we're seeing more and more examples of younger leaders, managing folks older than them. This was once unheard of. Tenure, not tenacity, once trumped all. Not anymore.

Why build your “fan base?” A village to raise a child, a world to make that child a success.

I'm a sucker for the storyline in which a single man or woman rises up above all odds, then gets to bask in the sweet glory of showing up those who doubted them.

That said, I've found that in today's society, there is something more satisfying, more scalable and more impactful than proving those who don't believe you wrong. It's proving those who do believe in you right.

Career success is never accomplished alone, and the more folks on your side supporting that success, the larger in scale it will be. You need people to root for you. And you must do that by in turn rooting for them, and helping them grow and be better at what they do.

The old adages around leading by creating a culture of fear versus garnering sustainable respect do not work in today's world (yes, there may be some blends of fear/respect out there that generate some success, but there are troves of examples that show in order to lead a successful team in today's corporation, you need people around you that truly want to help you to succeed and believe in you).

This isn’t an exercise in “being nice”  or “being cool” and getting everyone to like you. In fact, as Russ Edelman notes in CIO Magazine, “being too nice hampers your career growth and costs your employer time and money.” Author of leadership bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins notes that “personality is not leadership; some of the best leaders of all time had no personality.” Building a quality fan base is not a popularity contest; it’s about demonstrating your ability, then building future success on the foundation of the support of those who have witnessed that ability.

So how do you build this “fan base?”

While there is some anecdotal material out there that suggests a “broadcasting” approach, like this eHow article that does well on page rank, I’d be very cautious to suggest young leaders focus too hard on “forcing” the issue.

Rather than screaming out your successes at the top of the mountain, it’s important to instead focus on quality output in base camp. An “if you build it, they will come” approach, to quote Field of Dreams.

A former mentor once told me that “the best way to get your next job, is to do a great job at your current one.” I feel that philosophy applies to building a fan base.  If you do great work and root for those around you, you’ll see your fan base start to grow.

The music industry, where fans directly build or deplete your bottom line, is a great example of this.

Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in music industry history provides some good insight on this topic in this interview.  When asked how to build a fan base, his answer is simple, boring and brilliant:

“The best way to get a fan base is to get a gig and connect with your fans… you need someone else always, you can't do everything alone, you can't be performing and be seeing yourself perform… success has many fathers… don't worry about getting credit…”

Quick Tips to build your fan base as a young leader:

In addition to doing your job as well as you possibly can, here are some other quick tips for young leaders trying to build a fan base.

  1. Pick one tangible advantage your age brings and exude it every day. I cannot stretch enough how important it is to build your differences into competitive advantages. In fact, I even did a Next Blog post on the topic. For young leaders and managers, their youth is one such opportunity. Consistently show your employees and co-workers something about your age that gives you a competitive advantage. That way, if they ever think “Oh, he's young…” it will be followed with, "But that makes him good at X."
  2. Don't focus on being "better" than others; focus on making your team "better."  A friend once told me that the true metric by which to measure a leader is the success their organization enjoys after they leave. Pure leadership is selfless and the closer you can get to that point in your career, the more long-term success you will have. Jim Collins, at the 2012 SHRM Annual Conference, said  that “What the great leaders share in common is that the ego that drives them is channeled outwards and is not about them, it is larger and more enduring….great leaders have humility and truly aspire to be the dumbest person in the room.”
  3. Be useful and show you care about your team project’s success; even the non-glamorous work.  Volunteer to take notes on occasion and take that job, and other such jobs, seriously.
  4. Give kudos to others when it is deserved.  When someone is doing something right, send them a Starbucks card, or send their manager a note.
  5. Make it a personal challenge to get everyone to say at least one thing in a given meeting.
  6. Fans can come and go if you don’t build up trust.  In the book 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell has a great analogy for building up trust as a leader that is a great parallel for what it takes to maintain a fan base: “Trust is the foundation of leadership….a leader’s history of successes and failure make a big difference in his credibility. It’s a little like earning and spending pocket change. Each time you make a good leadership decision, it puts change in your pocket. Each time you make a poor one, you have to pay out some of your change. Every leader has certain among of change in his pocket when he starts in a new leadership position. From then on, he either builds up his change or pays it out. If he makes one bad decision after another he keeps paying out change. Then one day, after making one last bad decision, he is going to reach into his pocket and realize he is out of change. It doesn’t matter if the blunder was big or small. When you’re out of change, you’re out as a leader. A leader, who keeps making good decisions and keeps recording wins for the organization, builds up his change. Then even if he makes a huge blunder, he can still have plenty of change left over.”
  7. Face Time. Make it a challenge to show up to all your 1:1 meetings in person. Schedule them at the office of the person you’re meeting with, versus closer to you. Try and go to lunch with at least one of your co-workers at least once a week.  


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