The secret success formula of servant leadership

It was 1999.  I was flipping through Fortune magazine’s annual 100 Best Places to Work edition.  

Amongst the top 10 were many companies I was familiar with like Southwest Airlines, Goldman Sachs, and Hewlett-Packard.  

At #2 on the list was TD Industries.  Hmmm, I thought.  That name sounds familiar.  Sure enough, they were based in Dallas where I live.  I recalled seeing TD trucks around the streets of Dallas. 

I decided to call them up.  

I explained I was the CEO of a Dallas company and was interested in learning more about becoming a great place to work.  Creating an engaging workplace culture was a burgeoning interest of mine since reading Built to Last, in which Jim Collins and Jerry Porras analyzed a group of visionary companies that had built legendary workplace cultures and had outperformed the overall market by 15 times.

I was patched through to someone on TD’s People team who shared that servant leadership was the foundation on which the award-winning TD Industries culture had been built.  She explained that in the early 1970s, TD founder Jack Lowe, Sr. had handed out copies of Robert Greenleaf‘s The Servant as Leader to the TD partners (their word for employees).  They had discussed the key learnings and had put them into action.

I thought, if it worked for TD, perhaps it would work for us at PCI, too!

So, in 1999, we purchased copies of the orange Servant as Leader book and divided up into groups of 15 or so associates (our word for employees) to read and discuss.  

We’ve repeated this practice every five years or so.  This time around, because we now have about 400 associates, we decided to split up and have half the company read and discuss this fall and the other half will do so starting in January.

It’s a significant investment of time and money.  The prior time we read and discussed The Servant as Leader, our CFO showed up in my office holding a spreadsheet the night before we were to kick it off.  At the time, we generated about $100 of revenue per hour (RPH) in our Inside Sales group.  With 100 or so of our Inside Sales agents participating in six one-hour weekly meetings, we stood to lose $60,000 in revenue.

I explained I was confident we would see a nice return on our $60,000 investment.  Here’s why. Most organizations have a President at the top, then some VPs at the next level down, then managers and supervisors, and finally your front line at the bottom.

Servant leadership companies flip that model on its head. 

The job of the President is to serve the vice presidents.  Their job in turn is to serve and support the managers and supervisors.  Their job is to serve, support and remove obstacles so the front line can do their job.

Because that’s where business is actually happening.  

The client is at the very top of the upside down pyramid.  All of us are here to serve the client.  

One of the things my dad taught me years ago was to remember the client signs everyone’s paycheck.  I share this idea with all of our associates at PCI on their first day of work.  Yes, my signature will be on their direct deposit check.  But, we never want to forget it is really the client signs our paychecks.  The money comes from their bank account to PCI and then flows through to each of us at PCI.

The real power of servant leadership?

It changes who has leadership in their job description.  In traditional top-down organizations, the CEO or a small team typically see themselves as leaders.  In a servant leadership company, everyone has leadership in their job description.  

Everyone, every day, is expected to show up as a leader.  

At first, the idea of servant leadership taking root in businesses likely seemed far-fetched.  On its face, this type of leadership seems more suitable for a non-profit or a church.  

Or, maybe not.

“The first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous,” writes Robert in The Servant as Leader.  “A hopeful sign of the times, in the sector of society where it seems least expected—highly competitive business, people-building institutions are holding their own while they struggle successfully in the marketplace.”

Leadership is a mindset, not a title.  This, I believe, is the secret success formula of servant leadership.
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Reflection: Who has leadership in their job description at my organization?

Action: Read The Servant as Leader.

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