The importance of 'first followers'

By Beth Caron

Who are your followers?

Everyone talks about the need for great leadership in public office, business and our personal lives. But hardly anyone talks about the value—the necessity—of followers, especially “first followers.” Until now. 

What, you may ask, is a “first follower”? Simply put, a first follower is the person who can help you turn an idea into a movement. Without that person and the next few followers, your idea may go nowhere.

I wish I could claim ownership of the first follower concept, but I can’t. I learned about first followers by watching entrepreneur Derek Sivers’ very vivid Ted Talk, “How to Start a Movement.” In a video lasting just three minutes, he demonstrates the significance of a movement’s first few followers—“underestimated leaders in their own right.”

The video begins with a shirtless young man dancing wildly on a hillside where other people are picnicking. (This sounds stranger than it really is, I promise!) A few seconds later, another young man runs up and begins dancing. The first dancer embraces the second and they keep dancing. Then a third joins in. “Three is a crowd and a crowd is news,” says Sivers.

Heads turn, more people run to join the dancers—“They’ll be ahead of the crowd, if they hurry,” notes Sivers. Within three minutes, everyone on the hillside is dancing. At this point, not joining would just be humiliating.

The dancing man—the lone nut—has created a movement. Or has he? Sivers says it’s the first few followers who created the movement. First followers are important because “new followers emulate the first follower, not the leader.”

I didn’t have to look far in the Great Clips constellation of franchisees to find an example of the first follower concept in action. From your own experience getting a haircut (at a Great Clips salon or another brand), you’ve probably noticed that a lot of hair stylists express their personalities—creative, out-of-the-box thinkers and individualists—in sometimes unconventional apparel, make-up and jewelry.

Many salon owners have found that getting customers to return after their first visit increases when stylists dress more professionally. (Think: business casual with modest accessories.) Not only that, the stylists find that they get bigger tips.

I heard about a Great Clips franchisee who wanted his stylists to dress more professionally, but he knew that his staff often resisted change when it appeared it was just “change-for-change’s-sake.” They want proof that an idea worked before they would leave their comfort zones. So this franchisee created a “first follower” of the dress-for-success guideline.

He challenged one of his stylists to wear the professional look when she was working one weekend. He assured her that by looking more successful, she would be more successful—that she would see the results in increased tips.

The stylist accepted the challenge. And sure enough, she almost doubled the tips she usually received on a weekend shift. The other stylists started noticing—if only because she told them what she had done and the results she saw. Gradually, a couple more stylists adapted their attire and saw similar results. Pretty soon, the whole salon got on the bandwagon, and eventually word spread to other salons, which is good for the stylists and great for the franchisee. Satisfied customers being served by professional stylists—professional in their skills and appearance—means more return customers which leads to happier stylists.

The Great Clips franchisee knew his first follower would be important—and that’s Sivers’ lesson, too. Like the first dancer who embraced the second, we have to treat our first followers as equals because, as Sivers says, “they have the courage to follow and show others how to follow.” Without them, we risk being lone nuts.

I’m intrigued by this idea because it’s helpful to think that we as leaders don’t have to do it all. Perhaps the most effective leader is the one who allows the informal leaders on the team to set a standard, and then create a culture so that others want to follow suit.

When have you been the lone nut who attracted a following? When have you been the first follower? And what happened next? I’d love to hear your story!

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