Updated: Jan 7
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that "employees don’t leave companies - they leave their boss”. I tend to believe this is true in most cases. I see people as the most valuable asset of every company. Leaders are responsible for their own collective behaviors, and the culture of the organization.
Consider the following overarching success equation:
The organization has an overall cause, or mission, vision, and values that set the tone.
Leadership behaviors form the culture while directly impacting employee attitudes and engagement levels.
Employee attitudes and engagement directly impact quality output (the product or service delivery).
Finally, the quality of the product or service directly impacts the client’s experience, which;
Collectively IS the reputation (marketplace image) of the organization.
A recent Gallup study reports: Companies with engaged employees achieve 21% higher profitability than those without. Engaged employees have 41% lower absenteeism, and 59% less turnover.
"It is the outward expression of internal beliefs and emotions about yourself and others. Leadership is never about you, it’s always about the team and the cause."
CAUSE: What is the company all about? Mission and purpose?
PEOPLE: Culture, leadership behavior, and employee engagement.
PRODUCT OR SERVICE: Quality, relevance, price, and value. CLIENTS: Experience, perception. IMAGE: How the company is viewed in the marketplace.
Most leaders already agree that employee engagement is vital to the success of their organization. Many company leaders invest resources and money into programs that they believe will improve employee engagement such as diversity teams; recognition programs; health insurance wellness benefits; daily communication huddles; leadership town halls; and the list goes on.
These are all important and certainly do have value. They are evidence of an organization’s commitment to its employees and the environment in which they work.
"I ask the question of leadership, are these enough to foster the highest levels of employee engagement? I don’t believe they are."
TAKEAWAY: Leadership is never about you, it’s always about the team and the cause.
LEAD TO SERVE, SERVE TO LEAD
How one finds themselves in a leadership position is irrelevant. How one behaves in a leadership position is what matters. Their behavior is definitely their choice. Servant leadership behaviors for the most part can be developed through training and awareness programs. I advocate that organizations organize their external recruiting effort to include analysis of these characteristics, look for them in future leaders, and invest in this area of people development for their existing leaders.
This article is intended to provide an overview of the servant leadership behaviors I’ve learned through experience as a leader in the hospitality business. I have worked for and watched hundreds of leaders over my forty-two-year career, employed by two leading service companies: ServiceMaster and Aramark.
Some of these leaders were inspiring, while some were never intended to be leaders at all. I learned from both. And like most others, I’ve personally experienced both failures and success. Regardless of the outcome, I have always been humbled by the incredible privilege of leading other people.
I give an abundance of credit to the culture of ServiceMaster, where I was privileged to work for twenty-four years, beginning at the impressionable age of twenty.
ServiceMaster Industries was a leader in providing management services in a number of business spaces, having a solid reputation for delivering service excellence. What was unique about the ServiceMaster culture was the loyalty the firm received from the employees and customers. I believe this was a response to the loyalty and love that the firm’s leaders gave to employees and customers. I must emphasize that profitability of the firm was available to all employees through a share purchase program. Employees were owners and vested the “cause”.
The second of four ServiceMaster stated corporate objectives was “To Help People Develop”. The training and development of people at every level of the organization was an imperative that began on the first day of employment. Everyone had a development plan, from the President to the Housekeeping Associate.
People's development activity was monitored by a team of corporate and divisional Training Managers. Every employee had at least one mentor over their career. Learning at ServiceMaster was considered a life-long endeavor, and the firm believed it had an obligation to help people develop.
In 2001, I was fortunate to secure a position at Aramark which acquired ServiceMaster. Aramark was also a leader in the management service business. I was a senior growth leader at the time. It was there that I benefited greatly from the mentoring of two incredible leaders who guided me through what I considered to be a frightening situation. They gave me an important role in the “new” company and a collaborative place on the integration teams. They helped me to survive, and then to thrive. They were highly competent business executives, but they were also servant leaders possessing traits I had become skilled at spotting. I’m not sure they knew it, but servant leadership came naturally to them.
"There is much written about the subject of servant leadership. What follows however is mostly drawn from my own experience - and I believe that, experience matters."
HUMILITY Perhaps the most important behavior of a servant leader is the expression of humility. Serving and leading people is a privilege. Those that practice servant leadership understand this, and it is reflected in their behavior and demeanor.
Humility is foundational and extremely difficult to teach. I am reluctant to use a biblical term because it can easily be misconstrued as an attempt to proselytize. If you know me, then you know this couldn’t be further from my intention. It just so happens that this is where I found the most helpful characterizations of humility and the opposite feeling of pride.
Pride can be dangerous for a servant leader. How it is expressed, and about whom, determines how it is received and the impact it makes on people. Servant leaders never express pride in themselves, but always in the collective team and the nobleness of the “cause”. Servant leaders understand the need to express pride in the right dosage, or it can kill the efforts of the team. Pride can easily be received as conceit or arrogance – which for all intent and purpose – it is the antithesis of servant leadership.
"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom."
UPSIDE DOWN ORGANIZATION CHART
This is a very common illustration used to describe servant leadership. Truthfully, it conveys only a small part of the story. Suffices to say it reflects the notion of employees being served by the leaders, so they can deliver quality services or the product to the clients. Certainly, a great point, but it misses the most important elements of servant leadership: beliefs and behaviors. Servant leadership is not mechanical, it’s fluid. It’s not a ballad, but a symphony. It is not a fad; it’s a core belief system.
"Serving others is a selfless act. You serve your team, not the other way around."
LOVE This word is not used in management, leadership, or business books. I’m not sure why it isn’t, but I find it to be essential to mention. Servant leaders need two things – a cause they can internalize, and people they can serve. Love comes in many forms, but at the core is unwavering commitment, transparency, and loyalty. Most people like to use the word love to describe their relationship with their significant other or family members. This certainly applies. I like to also use it to describe the power behind servant leadership.
"Love the cause and your team authentically. Show it in your behavior. Be vulnerable."
This seems so fundamental, but it is essential. For servant leaders, it is second nature to give respect to all those that they lead, this is not true for all leaders. Simply stated, people respond favorably when they are respected, and they turn away when they are not.
Let’s unpack the important dimensions of respect:
APPROACHABILTY: Servant leaders must be approachable. If their teammates are truly the most important part of the organization, then openly engage with them. Stop what you’re doing when approached and ensure your teammates know you are open to them. Smile, face them and if necessary, move to a private location to avoid distractions.
ACTIVELY LISTENING: Giving undivided attention, and active listening. This requires physically facing the person talking to you, possibly leaning in. Making direct eye contact and offering acknowledgment of feelings and statements, asking pertinent questions, and not multi-tasking. Taking notes sends the signal that you respect and care about what the other person is expressing. Always follow-up if the topic requires it – if you don’t you lose the vital servant leader currency - trust and credibility
EMPATHIZING: Active listening is not enough, servant leaders empathize. They put themselves in the shoes of the person they’re communicating with to gain an understanding of their feelings – be they worry, pain, happiness, etc. Empathy enables the servant leader to make a connection and convey their understanding and compassion. I know I said I would not pitch any more statistics, but this one is powerful. 93% of employees believe showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention.
BEING TRANSPARENT: Being transparent and truthful about everything. People thrive on information and understanding – they need this to make their maximum contribution and gain their maximum reward in what they do. Information brings understanding and is liberating. Information withheld breaks trust and send a signal the team members cannot be trusted. If the information is sensitive, and convey this. But first and foremost, be transparent.
SEEK ENGAGEMENT: Servant leaders make it a daily priority to walk around looking to engage with others. They politely ask if the person they’re engaging has a moment to talk. They ask questions like; how did your daughter's ball game go last night; is your husband feeling better today; tell me about vacation; how is the college search coming along? They ask work-related questions like: Is the IT team engaged in the project; what can I do to remove any obstacles and better support you; are the Dallas client expectations being exceeded, Tyler I’ve experienced this before – may I offer you a suggestion? Allison, I heard the presentation went well – thank you for your leadership on this account. Eve, the Philadelphia client raved about your responsiveness during our meeting last week – thank you for what you do to care for this important client!
COLLABORATION: Not always easy to do, if you’re a “get it done” type “A” person (Ahem, speaking for a friend). But the skill is very important if you desire to behave like a servant leader. People want to be involved and play a part in how the cause is being achieved.
"Respecting others is not optional. People naturally respond to respect. Get out from behind the desk, grab a pen and pad, and engage your team every day."
AUTHENTICITY People can sense when someone is insincere in their behavior. If the team feels the leader is insincere or not authentic – their leadership is undermined and the team’s ability to produce excellent outcomes is severely limited. Outward passion for a cause and love for people cannot be faked. To determine if you possess these feelings requires serious and truthful introspection to be a servant leader.
Do the mission and values of your organization (assuming they exist) are ones you can internally own, and represent to others through your words and your actions?
How about your excitement for the product or service your team produces – does it create a solution you can be proud of?
Are you the happiest when you’re engaging and serving other people, or conversely do you prefer to be at your desk examining numbers or reading reports?
Do you relish helping and coaching others in their career aspirations?
Do you like seeing others grow and get recognition?
Is it a part of your purpose to favorably impact the lives of others you lead or collaborate with?
There are other questions you can wrestle with to help you determine where you are in your quest to become a servant leader – and it can be done.
"I read that a dog’s sense of smell is so powerful, it can smell a drop of blood in a large swimming pool. Humans are the same when it comes to sensing a fake."
SENSITIVITY TO THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGE
I have a favorite book written on the subject of getting things done, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling. I highly recommend it if you are searching for help if you or your organization struggles to execute new initiatives effectively. I’ve used the process, and I know it works – I’ve experienced it.
I’m telling you about this book because change is a challenging process, and it requires focus, discipline, and servant leadership.
The authors talk about the “whirlwind” which can present the biggest obstacle to change and accomplishing specific goals. According to the authors, the whirlwind is expressed as “the massive amount of energy necessary to keep your operation going on a day-to-day basis”. They also say “Executing in spite of the whirlwind means overcoming not only its powerful distraction but also the inertia of the way it’s always being done”. Servant Leaders are in a position to guide people sensitively through stressful times.
Let me put this concept in my own words. It’s human nature to establish a comfortable routine, most of us do this in life, including our work life. To make a change in your behavior or that of your teammates, you’ll have to exert discipline and set aside time for it. You and the team must collaborate and decide exactly what actions need to be done differently. Then implement a monitoring system to ensure the actions are being executed.
Then the vital question – are the actions changing the outcomes you wanted to impact in the first place. Examples of outcomes you may be trying to change: Is employee turnover being reduced? Is employee engagement increasing? Is the quality of your product increasing? Are you retaining more customers? Remember, all must participate in the development of the new behavior.
Often, at the end of the day, we wish we had accomplished more. However, wishing alone doesn’t get us very far. Have you ever asked yourself “where did the day go?” Quite possibly, the whirlwind took over! Schedule time out of the whirlwind each day and dedicate it to thoughts about how you can move more effectively toward your goals. Think about which goals your business would benefit from if you were to consistently meet them. Ask yourself, what new or different actions do you need to build into your routine muscle memory to excel?
I don’t mean to oversimplify this process or make it sound easy. It’s not. As I said, it takes commitment and discipline. All credit to this process goes to The 4 Disciplines of Execution - I highly recommend this book for all teams trying to make a change, and leaders trying to guide change.
"The daily “whirlwind” is extremely powerful. Whatever behavioral actions are identified to change; it must be monitored until it becomes part of your routine muscle memory. Servant Leaders play a role in helping their team through the “daily whirlwind” and guiding them through the stressful process of change."
Servant leadership sets aside the ego of the leader and any notion of “control”. It puts the behaviors I mentioned above center stage. They work alongside their team, not overtop of them. They guide them, yes, but they also liberate them.
Servant leaders set aside personal gain and dedicate themselves to the cause and the team. They see “profit” as more than numbers on a paycheck or the profit and loss statement, but more the impact of the cause on employees, clients, and their businesses (their clients' cause). They believe that fiscal profitability will follow the creation of and the delivery of value. Do not mistake this as a lack of concern for profit, or personal financial provisions. It simply means that they do not view fiscal profitability as the primary purpose. Many organizations will mistakenly reject servant leaders for this reason. I would call that short-sighted.
I will close with a final thought. Most people believe, or say they believe, that money will not buy your happiness. I personally believe this. I enjoy getting a bonus as much as the next person because it enables my family (collectively and individually) to have more rewarding experiences in life. Or, to fulfill their destiny for getting the most of this life. The bonus, therefore, feeds my personal “cause”.
"Servant leaders are dedicated to the company's cause, behaving selflessly in its pursuit."
FURTHER READING: If you would like to learn more about ServiceMaster, I suggest reading The Soul of the Firm, authored by C. William Pollard. Get your highlighter ready – the applicable takeaways are plentiful! My personal “go-to” book when I need to think about the privilege of leading.
OTHER REFERENCES: Gallup: Employee Engagement on the Rise, by Jim Harter. August 26, 2018. Gallup: The Right Culture: Not Just About Employee Satisfaction, by Jim Harter and AnnaMarie Mann. April 12, 2017.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ed Snowden has 40+ years of progressive leadership roles at two FORTUNE 500 management services companies where he won several performance awards. Ed has vast experience in a multitude of business capacities including strategic account management, sales leadership across North America.
If you need support in building and driving your business culture, strategic partnerships, or growth, you can contact Ed directly at: EdSnowden@4xiconsulting.com
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