The Visionary Role of the Servant Leader

I love the saying “A river without banks is a large puddle.” The banks permit the river to flow and give it direction. In my last post I explained that the visionary part of servant leadership is about providing clear direction. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, they can’t work toward a common goal. They can’t keep organizational energy flowing in a consistent direction.

Walt Disney provided a great example of this when he started his theme parks with a significant purpose. He said “We’re in the happiness business.” That is very different from being in the theme park business. Being in the happiness business helps cast members (employees) understand their primary role in the company.

Walt Disney’s picture of the future was expressed in the charge he gave every cast member: “Keep the same smile on people’s faces when they leave the park as when they entered.” Disney didn’t care whether a guest was in the park two hours or ten hours. He just wanted to keep them smiling. After all, they were in the happiness business. A picture of the future should focus on the end result, not the process of getting there.

The Disney theme parks have four clear, rank ordered values: safety, courtesy, the show, and efficiency. Why is safety the highest ranked value? Walt Disney knew that if a guest was carried out of one of his parks on a stretcher, they would not have the same smile on their face leaving the park as they had when they entered.

The second ranked value, courtesy, is all about the friendly attitude you expect at a Disney park. Why is it important to know that it’s the number two value? Suppose one of the Disney cast members is answering a guest question in a friendly, courteous manner, and he hears a scream that’s not coming from a roller coaster. If that cast member wants to act according to the park’s rank ordered values, he will excuse himself as quickly and politely as possible and race toward the scream. Why? Because the number one value just called. If the values were not rank ordered and the cast member was enjoying his interaction with the guest, he might say, “They’re always yelling at the park,” and not move in the direction of the scream. Later, somebody could come to that cast member and say, “You were the closest to the scream. Why didn’t you move?” The response could be, “I was dealing with our courtesy value.” Life is a series of value conflicts. There will be times when you can’t act on two values at the same time.

Every organization should have a compelling vision that includes a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. These three elements will provide the strategic direction people need on a daily basis to perform at the highest level and secure organizational success.

Understanding Servant Leadership

I’m spending a lot of time lately thinking and writing about servant leadership. Although much has been said and written about the topic, I still run into people who don’t quite understand the concept. They tend to think it is about the inmates running the prison, or a leader who tries to please everyone, or some religious movement. But I’ve found servant leadership to be the most effective way to inspire great performance and to create great human satisfaction.

If you take a look at the companies that embrace servant leadership, you’ll notice one thing they have in common—they are all leaders in their field. I’m talking about companies like Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Disney, Nordstrom, Wegmans, and Synovus, to name a few.  Leaders in these companies understand the two parts of servant leadership:

  • The visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • The implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

All good leadership starts with a visionary role that establishes a compelling vision that tells you who you are (your purpose), where you’re going (your picture of the future), and what will guide your journey (your values). In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.

Once leaders have shared the vision and people are clear on where they are going, their role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation—the second aspect of servant leadership. In this role, the leader does all they can to help their team members accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

I have a great example of this.  My daughter, Debbie, who is now our company’s VP of Marketing, worked at Nordstrom when she was in college. After she was there a week or so, she came to me and said, “Dad, I have a strange boss.”  When I asked what was strange about him, she said, “At least two or three times a day he comes to me and asks if there is anything he can do to help me.  He acts like he works for me.”  And I said, “That’s exactly what he does. He sounds like a servant leader.”

Nordstrom understands that their number one customer is their people—that’s why Debbie’s boss was acting as if he worked for Debbie. He was giving her the responsibility to serve their number two customer—people who shop in the store. Servant leaders know if they take care of their people and empower them, their people will go out of their way to take care of the customers.

At Nordstrom, the vision is clear—they want to create a memorable experience for their customers so they will keep coming back. Leaders and employees alike understand their role in implementing this vision. That is why they are comfortable with going to great lengths to keep customers happy.

One of my favorite stories about Nordstrom came from a friend of mine who wanted to buy some perfume for his wife. He approached the counter and asked for the perfume.  The woman behind the counter said, “I’m sorry, we don’t sell that particular brand—but I know another store here in the mall that does. How long will you be in the store?”  My friend said he would be there about 45 minutes, so she told him she would take care of it and to come back. She left the store, purchased the product, gift-wrapped it, and had it ready for him when he returned. She charged the same amount of money she spent at the other store. So even though Nordstrom didn’t make any money on that sale, they created a loyal customer who—along with his friends—would tell that story for years. And how do you think the salesperson felt about herself that day?  I’ll bet she was proud to be able to serve her customer so well.

I hope these stories help you understand how servant leaders create an environment that gives their companies a competitive edge. Remember, the key to being a servant leader is to start with a clear vision, then shift into the service mindset with your team to help them perform at their highest levels. You’ll improve engagement and morale, build a loyal customer base, and create a secure future for your company.

Getting Your Management Career off to a Great Start

For decades, I’ve been talking to new managers about their biggest challenges. One thing I still hear over and over is how hard it is to balance being the tough boss and being the nice boss. I think this feat is especially difficult for the new manager who started as a high performing individual contributor, was promoted, and is now managing former colleagues and friends.

This common first-time manager dilemma reminds me of my longtime friend and coauthor Don Shula, legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins. In our book Everyone’s a Coach, he says it is more important to be respected than to be popular.

I offer two pieces of advice. First, think back to a leader who inspired you to great performance. More than likely it was someone who combined toughness with compassion. You knew that person cared about you, but also that they would not let up on you in the quest for excellence. To achieve this balance you need to set high standards to make sure each person on your team is adding value to the organization. You also need to be present for them to offer support and direction along the way. You must be willing to set stretch goals with your people, pushing them beyond their comfort level—and then you need to help them achieve those goals.

This is where the art of communication comes into play.  Having honest and open conversations with your people when setting goals, providing feedback, and giving direction will pave the way to building mutually respectful relationships with them.

My second suggestion is to ask for training. Our research shows that more than 40 percent of new managers go years without receiving any training in their new role! That’s incredible. Is it any wonder that 60 percent of new managers underperform or fail in the first two years? Without proper managerial training, you are likely to develop poor habits that will prevent you from being as effective as you need to be. And those poor habits you developed early can become the familiar, comfortable behaviors that will be more difficult to change as time goes by.

For example, as a new manager you might find it hard to delegate—especially if you were a successful individual achiever who was promoted into a management role. But even though it might be easier and faster to do some tasks yourself, you must learn how to get work accomplished through others. If you don’t delegate, your direct reports might see you as a nice boss, but if you show each person you care about their development enough to require them to carry their own weight, they will respect you as their leader. This relates back to Coach Shula preferring respect to popularity.

Are you ready to ask for training to learn the skills you need to get your management career off to a great start? And are you ready to push your people to find the greatness within themselves? I guarantee if you focus on both of these issues, you’ll set yourself and your team up for success.

Let’s Talk: Tips for New Managers

A new manager faces important and sometimes jarring differences in their new role. They must focus on not only achieving their own work, but also managing the work of their team, managing the relationships of former colleagues who are now direct reports, and managing projects that have an impact on the organization. One of the keys to becoming an effective manager is the ability to conduct meaningful conversations. Our new First-time Manager program introduces the four most important conversations a new manager can master: goal setting, praising, redirecting, and wrapping up.

Put yourself in the place of a direct report who is beginning work on a new task or project. What questions do you think they would have? Here are four areas of concern that I believe drive people’s behavior at work:

“What are my goals on this task or project?”

“Am I doing the right things to help the team move forward?”

“How did I get off track—and how can I get back on?”

“Now that we’ve achieved the goal, what did we learn?”

The answers to these questions lie within the four types of conversations every manager needs to have with each team member at various stages of work on a task or goal.

For example, when a direct report needs to understand what they are supposed to be doing, they need to have a goal setting conversation with their manager. This dialogue focuses on exactly what the direct report needs to do and by when. It should take place at the beginning of a project or task and should include clear and compelling goals that are written down and reviewed frequently. This conversation sets the direct report up for success, growth, and development.

During the course of the task or project, the manager must give feedback to the direct report about their performance. When the individual is making good progress and doing things right, it’s time for a praising conversation. This conversation helps the person understand what specific behaviors are helping achieve the goal, why they matter, and that they were noticed and appreciated.

When things aren’t going as well in terms of a direct report’s behaviors or actions, the manager must initiate a redirecting conversation. This discussion will guide the direct report back on track toward the goal by helping them know what specific behaviors are out of alignment with the goal, why they matter, and that the manager wants the person to succeed.

Once a project or task is completed, it is important to have a wrapping up conversation. This is the manager’s chance to focus on the outcome, celebrate accomplishments, and acknowledge learnings. Managers see the wrapping up conversation as a great way to keep people energized and to inspire engagement by encouraging their progress and honoring the work they have done.

Have you started conducting these conversations with your team? How’s it going? If you find some of the conversations easier to have than others, that’s normal—but I hope you see the importance of continuing to have each of these important discussions with each of your people. You’ll build their trust and confidence while improving morale and performance—and getting excellent results—all for the greater good.

The Wrapping Up Conversation: A Great Idea for New Managers

I’ve written many times about the importance of managers working with each direct report to set smart goals, to praise progress and goal achievement, and to redirect when performance is falling short. In our new First-time Manager program, we train managers how to have conversations around these three secrets—goal setting, praising, and redirecting—from my book with Spencer Johnson, The New One Minute Manager®. We also introduce the importance of a fourth conversation—the wrapping up conversation.

The wrapping up conversation happens at the completion of a task or project. It offers the opportunity for a manager to celebrate a direct report’s accomplishment as well as new knowledge or skills gained during the process. It is also a good time to discuss what could be improved in the future. This kind of conversation allows both manager and direct report to review and honor the work that has been accomplished before moving on to the next project or goal. When I have a wrapping-up conversation with members of my team, I see them become more energized and engaged.

The manager begins this conversation by endorsing the other person and celebrating their achievement. Then the two openly talk about anything that could have been handled differently, discussing how the direct report feels about the goal or project, results that were accomplished, and the impact of the project on the department or company. The manager documents any key learnings or areas for improvement, and always ends the conversation with another endorsement for a job well done.

At the quick pace of business today, when people are jumping from one project to another or juggling several at once, it’s easy for the wrapping up conversation to be put off—sometimes indefinitely. However, taking time to reflect on a project provides another occasion for a manager to improve their relationship with a team member. Every conversation is crucial when developing a nurturing, trusting work environment.

I’d like to know what kind of conversations you are having with your direct reports. Are you consistently having conversations to set goals? Do you praise people for a job well done and redirect them when necessary? Do you have a conversation at the end of a project to honor the work? Share your comments below to let me know what kind of conversations are the most useful to you and your staff.