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Building Careers and Connections: A Leadership Journey of Followership and Mutual Support

October 2, 2023

In 2015, Meghan and Christina's professional paths converged, setting the stage for a collaborative journey that has spanned three diverse organizations. Followership is a sought-after trait in senior leaders and this blog aims to unravel the layers of what followership looks like. Their dynamic professional relationship is a narrative rich with mutual support, mentorship moments, and the powerful impact of followership. As practitioners who have navigated both sides of this dynamic, Meghan and Christina believe that their journey offers a distinctive and valuable perspective, poised to resonate profoundly within the Burtch Works talent community.

Meghan and Christina Introductions -

Meghan Anzelc, Ph.D. is the Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Three Arc Advisory. She has two decades of experience in data and analytics, having previously served as Global Head of Data & Analytics at Spencer Stuart. She has a decade of experience in financial services, most recently as the first Chief Analytics Officer at AXIS Capital. Dr. Anzelc's global experience in data and AI have made her uniquely qualified to shape strategy at businesses adapting to new and emerging AI capabilities ethically while managing risk appropriately. She advises boards of directors and executive teams on AI, data, and digital transformation across strategy and operations, serves as an Advisor to startups, and previously served on the board and as chair of the Nom/Gov Committee of the Chicago Literacy Alliance. She holds a Master’s and PhD in Physics and Astronomy from Northwestern University and a Bachelor’s in Physics from Loyola University Chicago. 

Christina Fernandes-D’Souza has over 15 years of global, cross-industry experience combining strategy, data, analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and technology, in both the private and public sectors, delivering business opportunities and competitive advantage. Currently, Director of Data Science at Three Arc Advisory, guiding startups, established companies and their Boards on how to drive positive business impact from analytics and AI while managing risk. Previously, as a Director of Data Science at Spencer Stuart, co-lead building a global Analytics Function, focusing on analytics product development and digital transformation. As a Senior Data Scientist at Zurich North America, lead various analytical and machine learning initiatives in several Lines of Business. She holds a Master’s in Applied Mathematics, with a concentration in Actuarial Science.

How did you both first meet?

Meghan: I was stepping into a new role that was a promotional move for me and the first role where I was managing managers. I was taking over leadership of a team that was frustrated and struggling for a range of reasons, so I knew I needed to build credibility quickly with the entire team. I met with every single person to learn about them and their current work and that’s my first memory of meeting Christina.

Christina: Meghan and I met at the first organization we worked together. She was my boss’s boss. Through organizational changes, I started to report to her directly. Soon after, I was dealing with a medical crisis with one of my immediate family members and although most memories during that time are a blur, I vividly remember my interactions with Meghan. I remember her empathetic leadership and immense support.

What have you learnt from each other over the years?

Meghan: I’ve learned so much from Christina. She wasn’t the only one on that team who had a family emergency or personal crisis during my time there and one of the things I learned quickly from Christina was the return you get from your team members when you give them flexibility and support to take care of their whole lives. It’s of course the right thing to do, but most leaders don’t see that it also pays back tenfold.

Christina’s trust in me has been a huge help in many ways. She points out where I’m wrong or missed something critical and she helps me see challenges from a different perspective. She excels at figuring out where she can make unique and impactful contributions and then executes; this one took me longer to learn because she does this so naturally and often subtly, but it’s been a huge contributor to the greater success of our teams.

Christina: Observing Meghan as a leader, I’ve learnt what it truly means “to be a best leader, you have to lead with your followers in mind.” Meghan has built a relationship with me where I feel safe to express my thoughts, ideas, feedback, and difference in opinion. I’ve learnt from her how important it is to empower people to make decisions and take ownership of their work, all while providing the resources they need and finding ways to develop their skills.

Meghan’s ability to set a clear vision and provide practical solutions, especially in ambiguous situations has helped me tremendously in my approach to problem solving. Her skill to facilitate conversations, where everyone has their own perspective, resulting in productive outcomes is still something I’m learning to do effectively from her.

What are some of the small and big ways you support each other?

Meghan: We help shine a light on each other’s strengths and accomplishments and celebrate wins together. I know I can ask Christina for help and she’ll jump in right away. She also helps in ways that I don’t always see, which can be some of the most important support when leading a larger team. I’ve found that leading effectively requires supporters at multiple levels in an organization to be the living examples of priorities and values. I’m sure Christina has done this in a multitude of ways that are completely invisible to me.

Christina: Meghan is someone who genuinely listens with intent - in my conversations with Meghan, she has heard me say that as part of my career strategy and branding, I would like to do additional public speaking, perform Board advisory duties, write articles and talk on podcasts. Meghan has supported me in each of these endeavors, either by asking me to join her or by providing opportunities to do them on my own. Her feedback along the way has been invaluable. We’ve all heard how important networking is and Meghan has graciously opened up her network to me, helping me add to my own, all while making introductions and recommendations along the way. I cannot thank her enough for her continued support of my success.

How did you both stay connected when not directly working together?

Meghan: I knew I wanted to work with Christina again. Sometimes it was staying connected in very informal ways, over coffee or a short email. Other times, I was thinking ahead to when I could hire her for another role so I wanted to know more about what she was looking for in her next role or what was good or bad about her current work. I’m a big believer in helping people get where they want to go in their careers whether or not it’s working for me, so I try to stay in touch with great talent and help where I can.

Christina: When we aren’t directly working together, we make it a point to stay connected in various ways from regular touchpoints, attending conferences and workshops together, jointly presenting at conferences, co-authoring publications/blogs, doing podcasts, and mentoring/supporting junior data & analytics professionals.  

Why is followership so important?

Meghan: It took me a while to understand this. I would see executives bring their closest team members with them when they joined a new organization and I never quite understood it. From experience, I can see now that there are a number of benefits. One is that it allows you to move more quickly in a new role because when you have people you trust and respect around you it’s easier to understand the realities you’re dealing with and get help digging into areas of concern or risk. It lets you build team culture much faster, because presumably the people you’re bringing with you exhibit the cultural values you want to bring to your new role and organization. It’s also a trait that is valued by other executives and executive search recruiters, because it shows strong leadership - it’s risky to move to a new organization so when people are willing to follow you, it shows the benefits you bring as a leader outweigh their personal risk in changing roles.

Christina: In his book ‘The Power of Followership’, Robert Kelley writes that research shows leadership only contributes about 20% to the success or failure of an organization. If followers contribute 80% to their organization’s effectiveness, it is vital that we understand how to maximize the quality of followership. Similar to Meghan, I didn’t understand how important it is to build a following till I started to move into leadership roles and wished I had certain people I’ve worked with on my team. It is helpful to have a blend of people you’ve worked with in the past, because you’ve already built relationships with them and know which skills you can hone in on to get faster impact, while allowing for time to build relationships with new members on your team.

In your opinion, what does it take to have a successful leader and follower relationship?

Meghan: Trust is a big one and I think that starts with the leader role. You have to do what you say you will to start building trust with others. Mutual respect is another, which doesn’t mean alignment on everything, but that you respect the person enough to share how you see things differently or where you think they are wrong.

Christina: Aristotle said, “He who cannot be a good follower, cannot be a good leader”.

I believe one has to be open to the fact that it isn’t a one directional relationship. There are times when a follower will lead and a leader will follow. Communication, engagement, initiative, trust, and honesty are some of the values which make the dynamics of this type of relationship work.

Closing Thoughts:

Meghan: I’m so honored to have deep and lasting relationships with so many people I’ve had the privilege of working with, including Christina. My career and work has been richer as a result and the mutual admiration and respect is wonderful. It has been an unexpected and incredibly fulfilling part of my career and I’m extremely grateful. None of us get where we are on our own and the journey is so much more fun when you have great people with you for the ride.

Christina: It is critical to find people you admire and have shared values with, either within or outside of your professional network. We all have had help along the way in our achievements. It is important to me to pay it forward as I continue to build my own followership and support the leaders, like Meghan, who have mentored and sponsored me.