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.
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…
I read an interesting article titled “Brand Is Culture, Culture Is Brand”, which examined the relationship between the Human Resources and Marketing departments in an organization. The premise of the piece is that, in the new paradigm of business, these two functions are intrinsically interlinked. I agree with many of the author’s points, and this is a principle I’ve always tried to employ in the businesses of which I am lucky enough to be a part.
It has been proven time and again that people prefer to do business with a company they are comfortable with and which provides excellent customer service. In fact, many individuals would prefer to again patronize a company that may have made a mistake, but was diligent and apologetic in correcting it, over a starchy outfit that gets it right every time. This is a testament that the human factor is just too powerful to ignore.
It’s almost a throwback to the era of “mom and pop businesses”, in that customers are searching for that personal attention and warm feeling from the establishments they patronize. Even if you are a large or multinational company, it is possible to establish a great culture and brand that is reflected in your staff. And yes, this matters if your business exists only online.
I feel that the HR function, which is the gatekeeper of an organization, has a direct impact on the culture of the company and the ensuing customer experience. The degree to which HR exhibits expertise and diligence in hiring and promoting energetic, talented, and customer focused people has a direct correlation on company growth and customer relations.
The idea of close collaboration between the HR and Marketing functions makes good business sense for a number of reasons. The employees of a company are the face of the organization. If you think that the company bigwigs and investors have the most influence on public opinion and customer perception, think again. A customer remembers the person they spoke to on the phone, the clerk at the counter, or the technician that came out for a repair.
I especially love the example in the article of USAA-a huge insurance and financial services company, serving military families. They offer a great training program in which new employees read real deployment letters, communications from soldiers stationed abroad, and walk in cumbersome 65 pound backpacks to get a taste of what it is like to be a soldier. This understandably inspires empathy, which comes across in how employees relate to customers.
I’ve always felt that it is critical to have the right people in the right positions, and then let them run with the ball. They are the ones that will build and maintain the company’s overall voice and culture. If you examine the Forbes list of the Top 100 Places to Work, the list is littered with companies that are known for their dedication to employees and the customer experience. Some of the most recognizable are Google, DreamWorks Animation Studios, and Whole Foods. These names are synonymous with a great customer experience.
There are so many options for a customer to choose from that the deciding factor is often the customer experience. This, more than advertising and promotions is what solidifies your brand in the minds of the public. I think that it is a promising trend that businesses are recognizing the power of their front line employees in their overall branding strategy. The marriage of Human Resources and Marketing just may be a perfect match.
I’ll be giving this topic a lot more thought in the months to come, and I’ll report back with how things go!