Sometimes the concept of servant leadership doesn’t get enough attention. When it does, most people understand the buzz wordiness of it but not its actual meaning and somehow like it to the “Are you a maker or a manager?” question.
The key to fully understanding servant leadership is captured in its subtlety. A lot of people who don’t appreciate the human side of life may think it’s just another “touchy-feely” concept that doesn’t mean anything.
Traditionally, leadership meant “I’m on top because I lead you.” Servant leadership flips that on its head; it’s about me serving my employees, not them serving me. It’s about the people who work WITH you not the people who work FOR you, so in that sense, it’s a paradigm shift that means looking at leadership with a different set of lenses and saying “I’m here to make these people lives better – I work for THEM”.
Servant leadership is about putting the people you manage first. The whole idea manifests itself in an upside-down pyramid:
Servant leadership is about creating a clear path that allows your employees to do their best work. Look at leadership in that way and I think you ultimately create better work environments. I think you get the best out of people because you demonstrate genuine caring and compassion for them.
In order to be successful, you need to keep in mind:
So who cares about this touchy-feely stuff? Why is it important? Before you think it doesn’t matter think again.
Management is a huge responsibility because managers have a profound impact on the lives of the people they manage. I think a lot of managers just don’t grasp the reality of that. Keep in mind, your people are working with you sometimes more than half of their waking time. People’s stress levels have a direct correlation to their health and how long they live. If you’re an @sshole manager, you’re essentially shaving years off of their lives. That’s inexcusable.
Look in the mirror. Is that the legacy you want to leave? Open your eyes. Day in and day out you have a huge impact over the quality of other people’s lives and that’s a big responsibility. You have the opportunity to make others’ lives more enjoyable, more engaged. If you have a positive, profound impact on the lives of just 5 people, that’s HUGE. This is bigger than you think.
Easily, one of the most fun parts of my job is management by walking around (MBWA). It’s not just fun, but its also quite effective as a tool in leading organizations. My experience, however, is that its an underutilized tactic. And for those of us who do it, its one of the easiest things to ‘bump off the schedule’ for something seemingly more important.
“Management by Wandering Around” is a term that was made popular by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, the authors of the 80′s bestseller In Search of Excellence. The concept was originally developed and touted by Hewlett-Packard executives in the 1970s. Since HP and In Search of Excellence made the term popular, its been a reoccurring topic in business books over the years.
Simply put, Management by Walking Around (I prefer the ‘walking’ to ‘wandering’), is an unstructured approach to interacting with employees in your organization. The idea is to ‘get out of the office’ and interact with real people doing real work in your organization. Companies that tout MBWA often push managers to spend more time out of their offices than in their offices, if they can swing it. The goal is to use these informal visits to listen to how employees are feeling, understand the challenges they face, gather ideas for improvement, and connect on a personal level.
Let me start by saying that I haven’t done any formal research on the topic. All my experience here is anecdotal, but I feel like it has served me well. The reason MBWA works is pretty simple: the best decisions are not often made in isolation. Its really easy, particularly when (you think) you are a smart executive, to make conclusions and solve all the businesses problems without talking to folks. But the reality is that you get better data, insight, and ideas from talking to people who are actually exposed to the problems you are trying to solve.
Also, as a leader in any organization, its important that you interact with people on a regular basis. If for no other reason, this is valuable because it enables you to keep a thumb on the pulse of the organization. When you are in your office the whole day, you don’t often get a sense for what is really going on. Furthermore, people don’t get to connect with you on a personal level and get to know you. Another important factor in all this is that people vary widely in their comfort level in talking with leaders and gregariousness. So, if you are not out there actively seeking out conversations, there is some distinct population of your team that you just aren’t going to hear from.
The truth is, I am still working on getting good at this whole MBWA thing. I’ve learned a thing or two so far, but I certainly have a ways to go. Here’s what I’ve got:
I continue to learn more about this tool every day. I’ll continue to employ it and report back with my results. I hope it works for you, too! Please post comments with anything you’ve learned!
One of the most interesting things about hiring extremely talented people is that they, often times, have extremely large egos that come along with their talent. Working on building a rapidly growing company has certainly opened my eyes to this interesting new reality. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to coach around these kinds of characteristics recently. While I am sure that I don’t have a perfect answer, I feel like I am getting closer, and and learning a lot about myself in the process.
The core message that I think its important to send to talented new employees:
I have so many employees that I wish would just listen to the advice above. The reality is that they are supremely talented. We knew that when we hired them. That’s why they were hired into the first place. Startups are selective. That’s part of laying a foundation for excellence. Unlike in big companies, there really is no place for mediocrity to hide in a small, high-performing organization. The first thing that new employees have to understand is that we are already recognize their talent.
We have so many wickedly talented employees. Part of this may be a poor reflection on me, to be honest. It’s possible that so many employees are trying to ‘show off their brilliance’ because I am not doing a good enough job of recognizing it. I’ll be the first one to call myself out on this. (Maybe the second or the third..)
As an entrepreneur, I operate with a (un)healthy sense of dissatisfaction nearly all the time. This is something that bleeds into my management style, whether I want it to or not. I probably shouldn’t be doing it, but I can’t help myself. I am always upset about something. I fear that this style is great for starting a business but not necessarily running a business.
It turns out that being recognized for doing good work is something that matters to people who produce good work. This jives intuitively for a lot of reasons. People who are high-performers are usually used to being high performers. And, whether we like it or not, the American education system is sort of big on ensuring that people have a sense of where they stand. (Or at least they did where I went to school!) The people I knew were always pretty keenly aware of their GPA, rank in class, etc. So, it’s safe to say that at least some high-performers are used to being recognized, and are no strangers to being competitive.
The hardest part, I think, for most entrepreneurs and leaders is this: one of the reasons they have gotten to where they are is because they are always striving for more. They are always a little-bit (if not very) dissatisfied. Typically, this is an internally focused feeling. I am generally pretty unhappy with myself, my performance, or some previous action that I could have handled better. Historically, I have tried to ensure that I don’t demonstrate that sense of unhappiness with other people. It’s typically not about them.
Here’s where it goes wrong: most good leaders and entrepreneurs have a strong sense of ownership. It gets easy to be unhappy when something doesn’t go well in the organization. And because you feel a sense of ownership for your team/group/organization, that feeling of dissatisfaction is not just about you anymore. It’s about wanting more for your organization and the people around you. The people around you can sense this dissatisfaction, and they often take it personally!
I am not going to lie. I was a spoiled kid. I was a ‘surprise,’ so my brother and sister were a lot older than me, and took me under their wings as a second set of parents. I had no shortage of getting what I wanted. As a youngster, I sort of got used to the whole world being about me. So you can imagine my shock when I went to school for the first time, only to learn that there were other kids who needed attention too.
Turns out that your ‘business growing up’ is an awful lot like ‘you growing up’. . In the early days, whether you are starting a company or building a small team within a larger organization, nearly everything is about you. Its about your effort, your vision, your passion, your hard work, etc etc. But when you start staffing great people to help you make the vision a reality, it stops being about you and starts to be about the people around you.
One of the things I have seen a lot in myself and the entrepreneurs around me is a constant battle with this concept. Learning to focus more on the people around you than on yourself is a lot easier said than done. I suspect that many of us simply choose not to because the transition isn’t always fun or easy. I think, ultimately, this is one of the core factors that influences whether or not entrepreneurs can scale into successful leaders. And if you really want your organization to be a huge success, then you need to ensure that your leadership team is good at this. Even if that means that you need to get out of the way…