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Leadership Development

Servant Leadership

Nearly everyone reading this article finds themselves in some sort of a management or leadership role.

Ever wonder what we’re doing there? I think most everyone has at some point. Like so many folks in management roles, I knew a lot about what I thought poor management was. So when I got into management, much of my motivation stemmed from frustration (partly justified, partly not) with those who were managing me. I could do it better. I also moved into management because it was the next logical step forward, having started as a dishwasher, then moved on to kitchen prep and then to cooking. And, I ended up in a leadership role because, like so many in management, I was willing to work longer and harder than those around me.

What’s missing from that list is that I did not go into management because I had this inspiring vision of what great leadership looked like. Which, in hindsight, was a problem. Fortunately, I’ve had patient partners and supportive staff, who’ve stuck with me while I worked out that positive vision for myself and for our organization. And in the process I’ve come to believe very strongly that one of the keys to becoming a successful leader is, first and foremost, to develop a vision of what great leadership will look like for us.

It’s a personal question-one to which there’s no simple right or wrong answer. Ultimately, what’s most important is that we have an answer to a seemingly simple question, “What kind of leader do I want to be?”

Without a clear answer, we will never be effective leaders. Without one, we’re likely left wandering around in a haze of frustration with our staff, our organization, the world, and, ultimately, with ourselves. Sound familiar? It is to me. I’ve lived that frustration, and so have those around me. If you haven’t yet had to, it’s not fun.

The first step out of this frustration for me was to start by coming clean, and clear, on what I wanted my leadership to be like. To develop a vision of what successful leadership looks like to me. By working with my partners and others in our organization, we’ve built this into what we believe is a teachable, effective approach. The first part of our vision is what we refer to as “Servant Leadership.” The concept is based on a book of the same title, written by Robert Greenleaf. If you’re interested in getting more of his views, read it. But to get you going, I’ve outlined Zingerman’s interpretation and application of his approach.

The basic belief of Servant Leadership is that, we, as leaders, are here – first and foremost – to serve our organizations. This may sound obvious, or even inevitable, but in our experience, it’s neither. In more traditional organizations, the service ethic flows in the opposite direction; that is, the organization is set up to serve its leaders, not the other way around.

To paraphrase John Kennedy’s famous speech from the 1960s, Servant Leadership says, “Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for your organization.”

To live Servant Leadership effectively; we start with the view that we are going to treat our staff as our “customers.” As CEO of Zingerman’s, my “biggest” customers are the managing partners of each of our businesses, and the central administrative staff, all of whom report to me. In turn, each partner’s primary customers would be the managers who report to them in their businesses. The managers’ are the front line staff that report to them. In each case the idea is to that the leader is giving great service to his or her staff, in order to keep the service energy in the organization flowing out, toward the front-line hourly staff. Why? Because the front-line staff are nearly always the people who are dealing with paying customers and/or making the products we sell. And we want to make sure their energy is freed to give the best possible service to customers coming in the front door, over the phone or via email. Why? Because, quite simply; the better the service we give to those front-line customers, the better the organization is going to perform.

Servant Leadership creates a number of management paradoxes, which we must acknowledge to use it effectively. One is that the higher up you move in the organization, the greater your obligation to serve. The more you advance, the “higher” you get promoted, the harder you’ll probably have to work and the more you have to give of yourself. Success in this sense makes our work more challenging, not easier. The challenge is that this runs completely counter to the traditional American image that we’re going to get promoted so we can do less.

Similarly, Servant Leadership creates paradox because it says that, although we hire, pay, promote, and have formal authority over our staff, we will treat them as customers. Finally, there is paradox at play here because, at times, what you or I want for ourselves will conflict with what is best for the organization as a whole. Certainly, our ideal is that each of us is able to fulfill all of our personal goals and meet all of our needs, while simultaneously leading the organization to greatness. But things don’t always work that way. Sometimes we, as servant leaders, must choose to give up something we want for ourselves in the short term in order to provide more for others around us.

How do we deal with these paradoxes? Learning to become a great manager is a lot like learning to become a great taster. We have to practice; we have to compare notes and realities with others that have more experience. Over time, we build our sense of what’s right and of how to balance these paradoxes in our work.

You might wonder, “Wouldn’t it be easier to do this the old way?” Or maybe you’re thinking, “It’s crazy to give employees service when we’re paying them to perform.” Why after all, would you want to work hard to get promoted so that then you could have the chance to work harder? Why would it be worth dealing with the added burden, complexity, and paradox that Servant Leadership requires? These are fair questions. Each of us has to answer these questions for his or her self. But, at Zingerman’s, we stick with Servant Leadership because:

a) It’s the right thing to do.
Ultimately, it is what we give, not what we get, that defines us as leaders and establishes the legacy that we leave behind in our organizations and our lives. Our most rewarding work has been when we’ve created a successful Zingerman’s Experience for staff members who were able to grow and contribute way beyond what anyone had originally expected.

b) It gives us the chance to help others grow and succeed.
When they decide to come to work, staff members choose to follow us, allowing us the opportunity to succeed as an organization in ways we couldn’t without them. In return, we are responsible for providing an environment to the staff in which they can fulfill their dreams and live up to their potential as participating members of the company.

c) It begets better service to customers.
The service our staff gives to our customers will never be better than the service we give to the staff. We, the leaders, not the staff, are the ones who will either lead or, alternatively, hold back the organization’s service quality.

d) It creates a more appealing workplace.
From a strategic perspective, providing great service to our staff can only help to make Zingerman’s a better and more appealing place to work. And since we are competing with hundreds of other companies to attract the most creative, hardest-working, food-loving staff we can find, this offers us a huge strategic edge.

e) Service sets the tone for our organization.
As leaders, we set the example for everyone in our organization. If a leader sends a message that “I come first,” then it’s inevitable that the same “me first” approach will be the attitude that will prevail throughout the organization. In Sacred Hoops, (then-) Bulls basketball coach Phil Jackson wrote that, ” … creating a successful team … is essentially a spiritual act. It requires the individuals involved to surrender their self-interest for the greater good so that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.” This is the sort of synergy we work to create through Servant leadership.

f) It helps you move toward what you want for yourself.
Learning to become an effective Servant Leader has made my work more rewarding and enjoyable. It helps us make a difference in the lives of our staff. That’s a rare and valuable opportunity.

So, now that you’ve got the theory; how do you go about being an effective Servant Leader in day-to-day life? Here’s our take:

1. Provide Inspiring & Strategically Sound Vision
The Servant Leader’s number one responsibility is to provide vision for their part of the organization. What’s a vision? It’s an answer to the simple-yet radical-question, “If we’re really successful in our work, what will our organization look like __ years/months from now?” What types of vision do we need to provide? Both large ones (for the organization overall) and small ones (for specific projects or product lines, etc).

An inspiring and strategically sound vision is one of the most motivating things you can offer your staff. This is a concept that is as old as the Bible (in which the import of vision is emphasized) and as new as National Public Radio (on which I heard a management guru reaffirming its importance).

The vision is essential because it lets staff know where we’re headed; it tells them what tomorrow will look like. It sets out a positive picture of the future that we are all going after together. And it lets them know how organizational success will create a better tomorrow for them.

2. Give Great Day-to-Day Service to Staff
Here’s where we take the Zingerman’s 3 Steps to Great Service and 5 Steps to Handling Complaints and put them into practice in dealing with our staff. How? The same way we do with customers. (See additional material at the bottom of the page.) There are situations where, although the staff member is truly upset, things aren’t quite so simple as with customers. The staff may be asking for, or complaining about, something that they may not fully understand. It could be that they’ve inaccurately assessed the situation. Perhaps they just don’t agree with the way we do business. In these instances, there is room for a significant departure from the way we treat staff like customers and how we treat customers like customers. With paying customers we would act as if they’re always right, even when they’re wrong. But with staff this won’t work. If for example:

• The staff member’s reality is way off base
• Their behavior is unethical or inappropriate
• You believe the organization is going to suffer for something the staff member is demanding

Then you need to find some constructive, effective way to work things through to resolution.

3. Manage in an Ethical Manner
As leaders we have a huge responsibility to live our ethics or principles in our day-to-day work. If you’ve already put your organization’s ethical standards in writing, you can start by simply making time to re-read them regularly and to see where you’re already doing well and where you might improve. Essentially, this is the “walk the talk” part of leadership that we’re all aware of, but that’s always difficult to do. The more we walk our talk, the higher our integrity, the more effectively we can do our work.

Here are a few things that help build credibility and effectiveness:

a. Treat the staff with dignity at all times.
b. Show that you care about staff members as individuals. Take a minute to ask how their vacation was, to ask how they’re feeling, how school’s going, etc.
c. Don’t hold grudges; grudges get us nowhere except in trouble. It’s far better to just let go and to move on, than it is to stay suspended in an angry, unproductive past.
d. Be professional. Return phone calls, don’t cut down peers or customers, don’t complain to staff members about others, don’t be late for meetings, etc.

4. Learning & Teaching
In order to help keep our organization up to speed, and to create the sort of learning environment that is so important to our future growth and success, we ask that all Zingerman’s managers and partners do an average of two hours of formal learning per week. It could come through books, audio tapes, websites, attending seminars or classes, newspapers, consumer magazines, trade magazines, etc.

We also ask that all Zingerman’s managers and partners do an average of at least an hour a month of formal teaching. Why? More often than not, the only time we really effectively learn the material at hand is when we get up in front of others and teach it. The more we teach and provide staff with the information they need to succeed, the better the service we’re giving.

5. Help Staff Succeed

Another way we provide Servant Leadership is by helping our staff members succeed. Why? Because when they’re successful we’re all successful. This can be done in any number of ways. Some of the most important include:

a. Effective training to provide answers to the following questions:

1. What is expected and by when?

2. How will the needed information be provided? It’s critical here that we provide the necessary resources (teaching, training, benchmarking, etc.) to help staff succeed.

3. How will we know if expectations are being met?

4. What are the rewards and consequences if the expectations are, or are not, met?

b. Use effective and responsible communication techniques.

In an essay entitled “The Requirements of Responsibility,” Robert Greenleaf writes, “Responsibility … requires that a person think, speak and act as if personally accountable to all who may be affected by his or her thoughts, words and deeds.” With that in mind, we:

Provide staff with a good mix of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Our recommended daily ratio is 4 parts positive to 1 part constructive criticism.
Avoid accusatory ”you” messages and, as much as possible, use “I” messages.
Are active listeners. Strong listening skills pay great dividends for leaders.
Regularly show empathy for others.

c. Have the courage to offer constructive criticism and to make the difficult decision.

This is one area in which Servant Leadership appears to diverge from a straight customer service approach. While we may often see ways for customers to alter their attitude to get the results they want, it’s rarely appropriate to tell them. But in management, when a staff member who reports to us is not living up to expectations, then it would in truth be poor service NOT to tell them. In fact, the less they know about what we want, the less we share our concerns constructively, the lower the likelihood that they will succeed in their work. That is the opposite of showing commitment to their success.

Greenleaf writes, ”Am I willing to say the words and take the actions that build constructive tension? The act may seem hard and unreasonable to the recipient at the time, but it may be the most constructive kindness.”

6. Say Thanks

Saying thanks is one of the key responsibilities we have as Servant Leaders. Why? When we say thanks, we set the tone to move our organizational culture towards a more appreciative, positive future. Everyone – you and I included – works more effectively when his or her efforts have been noticed and appreciated.
Ultimately, saying thanks and recognizing people’s contributions is one of the best ways to let people know their efforts made a difference. Leading with appreciation rather than with criticism is a more effective and enjoyable way to work.

How can you say thanks? There’s a hundred ways to do this. Here’s a few:

• Thanking everyone when they finish their shifts
• Complimenting when you see something done well
• Writing thank-you notes
• Giving gifts of appreciation or recognition

As our business has grown over the years, it’s become increasingly important that we actively teach Servant Leadership to new managers coming into our organization. We offer classes, put on seminars, tell stories, share experiences. The more we teach it, the more we clarify our expectation that all leaders in our organization put the concept into practice, the more effective we will be.

Regardless of your feelings about Servant Leadership, I encourage anyone in management to develop their own model of effective leadership, and then to share it with the rest of their organization. It’s never easy, but it’s always productive work.

A Servant Leadership Short List
1. Provide Inspiring and Strategically Sound Vision
2. Give Great Day-to-Day Service to Staff
3. Live the Guiding Principles
4. Active Learning (2 hours a week) and Teaching (1 hour a month)
5. Help Staff Succeed
6. Say Thanks

Three Steps to Great Staff Service

1. Find out what the staff member wants. Greet them enthusiastically. Do this by engaging them. Ask questions, listen well, read their body language and tone of voice.

2. Get it for them: a. accurately, b. politely and c. enthusiastically. Just like with paying customers.

3. Go the extra mile and do something for them they didn’t ask you for. You might buy them coffee, open the door for them, give them a small gift or thank-you card, etc.

Four Steps to Handling a Staff Complaint

With staff complaint-handling, it’s almost the same as with paying customers.

1. Acknowledge what they’re saying.
Don’t start by refuting/denying/explaining or excusing. Just acknowledge that you’ve heard their concerns by simply saying, “Oh,” or “wow!”

2. Apologize.
Remember that by apologizing, you aren’t saying the staff member is necessarily correct in the accuracy of their complaint or criticism. What you are doing is apologizing for the fact that they’re upset or concerned. Something as simple as “I’m really sorry you were so upset,” or “I’m sorry you were caught off guard” can help defuse a tense situation.

3. Make things right.
Often, we as leaders field legitimate “customer complaints” from staff. Paychecks might not have been ready. The schedule wasn’t up on time. We need to find a way to make things right, just as we would with a paying customer.

4. Thank them for complaining.
Again, this is no different than it would be with a paying customer. “Thanks for sharing your concerns. I appreciate it.”