Ancient Greek and Roman temples, the great pyramids of Egyptian, Mayan and Inca cultures, the 828 meters (2,717 ft) towering Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, and 104-storey One World Trade Centre in New York are monuments of indentured servitude. Architectural marvels built by slaves of bygone rulers and laborers bound to regular paychecks issued by 21st-century employers.
Historians tell us Inca rulers took care of their toiling populations by building storage for food and making sure all were fed. Caring for workers is an ancient concept that’s taken giant leaps millennium later. In today’s progressive business circles the growth and well-being of employees take precedence over kingpin autocracy. Popularized by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, most of us know the management model as servant leadership.
When well executed it’s an approach that feeds into employee engagement and all of its associated benefits. Take a look at any top 10 or 50, 100 or 1,000 top company lists and you can safely wager a good percentage are led by servant leaders. A closer look will reveal employee engagement is high in these organizations. Growth is fueled by innovation. Customers are satisfied. Profits are up.
Servant Leadership 101
A leader with a servant’s soul creates a culture where employees come first and people managers exist to nurture growth — individually and collectively. They take the time to connect with employees by showing a genuine interest, talking with them about family, interests, and life outside of work. They feel a responsibility towards employees as fellow human beings, place the importance of people over profit, develop environments of collaboration and community, and introduce support structures for innovative freedom and ownership that in turn, foster high levels of employee engagement.
20 Tips and Words of Wisdom from Those Who Know Best
The people cited below are servant leader specialists in their own rights. Some have led companies known to be among the best places to work. Others have been ranked among the world’s top business leaders, have spearheaded remarkable organizational turnarounds, or have created a legacy through their research and writings.
1. Understand and support what makes human beings thrive at work.
“My main job is to support our employees… In supporting our employees, I think the most important thing—and it really comes as a consolidation of many trends—is how do you make people’s work easier? It’s why we focus a lot on the impact of automation, robotics, technology, and the work that our people do. It’s also very much about making them ready. The world is changing very fast, so we have to create career paths, and we have to support the training of our people so that they’re ready for change.”
– Sylvia Metayer, CEO of Sodexo Corporate Services Worldwide
2. Strive for every single employee in the company to know absolutely everything.
“Nothing makes someone feel more a part of a team than knowing everything has been communicated to them. We know that some information we share could fall into competitors’ hands, but the advantages far outweigh the risks.”
-Melissa Reiff, CEO of The Container Store
3. Build and maintain trusting relationships.
4. Celebrate the power of individual differences.
5. Set up formal and informal feedback mechanisms to get important and open feedback.
6. “Build trust through sincere apologies.”
– Kristen Hadeed, Founder and CEO of Student Maid
7. Create a culture of trust (not fear), respect, and candor.
8. Make coaching, development, and feedback an everyday conversation between people leaders and direct reports.
“Leadership is about learning and teaching. We have no mistakes here, we have learning moments.”
– Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company
9. Focus on bringing out the best in people through communication, trust, celebration, respect, continuous improvement, and responsible freedom.
10. Treat your people like family.
“I was in the midst of raising six kids, feeling the deep sense of responsibility of making sure they were cared for and had the tools to develop into the people they were meant to be. It dawned on me that I wanted to give that same opportunity to the team members who worked for me.” – Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Group
11. “I must know you to grow you.”
– Cheryl Bachelder, Author of Dare to Serve and former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
12. Express humility, authenticity, interpersonal acceptance, and stewardship.
13. Acknowledge fallibility and the limits of one’s own knowledge.
14. Facilitate a learning environment in which employees can learn and develop through their own experimentation and by learning from others.
15. Demonstrate that not only can employees be themselves, but also that the work environment genuinely encourages and welcomes this.
16. Act with integrity.
17. Accept that people can and do make mistakes.
18. Understand and appreciate unique perspectives.
19. Act not only as caretaker but also as a role model.
20. Give employees a sense of belonging.
“If employees have a sense of belonging to something that they perceive is of genuine importance to them, a powerful spirit of responsibility is engendered, which in turn creates a greater likelihood of individuals putting in more effort and being more conscientious in their attitude to the organisation, the work, colleagues, and clients.”
– Professor Dirk van Dierendonck, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University