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.
Management – or at least the path to management – is a funny thing. Traditionally, the path to career advancement has meant that people start out as individual contributors. There’s only so far they can advance as “doers”, so they strive to move up the ranks by becoming managers. Those who are upwardly mobile work hard to be recognized as among the few smart contributors who get chosen to move into management. So the typical track to career advancement is sequential – entry level, senior level, principal, manager, etc.
The presumption is that in order to advance, individual contributors will have to go from “doers” to managers. It’s been embedded into our culture as part of the dream to make more money and be more “successful” by becoming a manager.
I think what has become the standard culture – stacking individual contributors and management positions as some sort of linear “silo” is a fatal mistake made by a lot of companies and by a lot of very bright individual contributors who want to get ahead and feel valued in an organization.
In some ways, and for some very talented individuals, forcing them into management is like throwing them under a bus. Why? Because parts of management suck like they’ve never imagined.
Management is not what it’s cracked out to be. When you become a manager your employees come first and you come second. If you’re going to be a good manager, you need to understand that your needs, desires, etc. come second. Your job is to serve the people you manage – so they have clarity, so they know what success looks like. The reality is most people aren’t ready for that.
Putting people first is exhausting work. You have to always think about their happiness. People in the aggregate can be hard to deal with – you’ll have under performers, troublemakers, etc. As a manager, you have to be ready to give your employees the direct feedback they deserve, and that’s not always a comfortable thing to do. There will inevitably come the time when you’ll have to let someone go. In short, you’ll have to deal with a lot of meetings, politics, and other intricacies of the role, all the while making sure you’re being tactful.
When I interview people for managerial roles, I ask them how they deal with the sucky parts of management, like firing and disciplining employees. I often hear, “No parts of management suck”. That’s just sheer bull. Either they’re completely disillusioned or weren’t really in a true manager’s role before. Maybe they were called “managers” but have never had to deal with real management issues. In truth, becoming a manager impacts your quality of life inside and outside of work.
I’m not saying advancing into management or being a manager is a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s not for everyone. All too often, when you promote someone into management as part of a sequential silo, you lose your best individual contributor and gain your worst manager.
The bad news is the legacy of corporate America is what it is. Traditional silo-style career progression is asking for trouble. Yes, there are people out there who are built for the transition to manage and understand what they’re getting themselves into. However, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The good news is that some companies are creating parallel tracks where contributions are highly valued both as an individual contributor and as a manager. Good companies place equal value on top notch individual contributors and top notch managers. Both have room for progression. Both are recognized for their specific talents.
In my earlier post, Mentorship vs Management — Solving the problem I suggested that getting an org chart right involves equality and voluntary transitions (illustrated above). This is a dual approach where individual contributors have more room to grow in a mentorship path and remain contributors. They can move into management if they want to – and honestly believe they have what it takes to be good managers – but they can also move higher within their role as contributors, with increasing levels of compensation and more room for growth. As they move up the ladder, their opportunities and responsibility for mentorship increase.
In short, the best doers can spend their time doing and the best managers can spend their time managing. And I’ve got to believe that’s the best long-term solution for keeping workers happy.
I think employee recognition is an area that’s grossly undervalued, both by managers and by people in general – especially when it comes to knowledge workers.
Knowledge workers get paid reasonably well. If not, they know they can go somewhere else and make good money. I find that engineers, as a rule, are very good at crafting a world that works for themselves. Maybe because it’s easy to do. But crafting a world that works for others – not just yourself – is much more difficult.
In my experience, when it comes to work happiness has everything to do with WANTING to go to work each day. I never WANTED to got to school, but I put that life behind me 12 years ago when I started my first company and I’ve never looked back or given it another thought since.
Do your employees find themselves in a place where they WANT to go to work? Beyond money, an important way to make people WANT to come to work for you is to recognize them when it’s warranted and make recognition a systematic part of what you do so it actually gets done.
To some degree, in order to put other people in the spotlight, you have to step out of it, which entrepreneurs have a terrible time doing. For some people it’s a zero-sum game – they care too much about themselves. But those are not the type of people you want. You want people who feel good about making others feel good.
It’s very easy to follow the path of least resistance and recognize only those near to you, while forgetting everyone else. It’s also very easy to put off or completely forget to recognize exceptional people without a conscious, ongoing effort. Keeping a spreadsheet or other system where you can record when someone does exceptionally well that also includes your ideas on what you plan to do for them works really well. Otherwise, its too easy to forget and go about your day.
To get employee recognition right, it needs to be an integral part of your regular routine. You need to hold yourself accountable for recognizing your employees in some structured way and make time for it. Otherwise it won’t happen. And, when your top performer turns in his or her resignation, your day will be about to get a lot busier. Then it will be too late.
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!