Build Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership & Continuous Improvement

Build a Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership & Continuous Improvement

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 16, 2018

CEOs are always looking for ways to differentiate their business from competition to build a competitive advantage. One of the ways to achieve this differentiation is through a servant leadership environment and a continuous improvement culture.

In an April 2013 article in The Washington Post headlined, “Servant leadership, a path to high performance,” Edward D. Hess at the University of Virginia wrote that his research found that “leaders [of high performing companies] were servants in the best sense of the word. They were people-centric, valued service to others and believed they had a duty of stewardship. Nearly all were humble and passionate operators who were deeply involved in the details of the business. … They had not forgotten what it was like to be a line employee.

“They believed that every employee should be treated with respect and have the opportunity to do meaningful work. They led by example, lived the ‘Golden Rule,’ and understood that good intentions are not enough — behaviors count. These leaders serve the organization and its multiple stakeholders. They are servant leaders.”

What Hess found is very similar to the research of Jim Collinsas presented in his iconic book “Good to Great,” in which Collins describes “Level 5 leaders [as those] who display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.” Level 5 leaders are not the “larger than life” imperial leaders many of us are so familiar with.

Don’t think that servant leaders and Level 5 leaders hold their organizations accountable to only easily achievable goals. They set tough goals and have high-performance expectations for their employees, empower them to achieve those expectations and hold them accountable for results.

In May 2016 I wrote an article headlined, “Saxbys coffee: How treating your people right can lead to success,” in which I described Nick Bayer, founder and CEO of Saxbys, as an ardent believer in servant leadership. Bayer feels that Saxbys’ culture is the most important determinant of his company’s success.

I asked Bayer, “How do you differentiate Saxbys – why do customers come to your cafés and buy coffee?” He said, “We compete on people, not on product. Most people think that we are in the product business – we are actually in the people business. I realized that I can compete [with other companies] on people and on hospitality. People are at the core of what we do – our team members and guests.”

Bayer and his senior leadership team give significant support to their café managers. He said, “I personally am an absolute zealot of the mentality of ‘servant leadership.’ Organizations work best when they are upside down. Our café managers are the CEOs (café executive officers) of their businesses. All the people at headquarters exist to serve our café managers and their teams. We are here to help them to be better at their jobs. My expectation of them is to be servant leaders to the members of their teams. Their job is to make life better for their guests every single day.”

On the subject of empowerment, Bayer said, “We hire people with good critical judgment and empower them to make decisions. Other employers take power away from their employees. I don’t want to get in the way. I want my people making decisions. I hire people who will develop a sense of ownership in their business.”

A servant leader environment is perfect for establishing a culture of continuous improvement. In August 2014 I wrote an article headlined, “A culture of continuous improvement is no management fad …” and as the then CEO of PQ Corporation, how I used that culture to build competitive advantage.

At PQ, we dubbed our continuous improvement culture “continuous quality improvement,” or CQI. CQI was led by me and the other members of the senior leadership team, but was driven by the employees at every level within the company.

The senior leadership of the company were charged with creating an environment where employees developed a sense of ownership in that part of the business in which they worked. This cultural shift put power and responsibility into the hands of employees to initiate improvement projects, without getting upper management’s approval, which fit a servant leadership model. If an improvement idea was beyond their authority level, employees were empowered to present the idea to the individual who has the authority to approve it.

Creation of a CQI culture required training of all managers to be coaches and counselors to their staff, encouraging them to develop and implement their own improvement ideas. Training was also provided to help employees analyze data to determine the root cause of issues, so proper solutions could be identified.

By adopting CQI, PQ saved millions of dollars from ideas generated and implemented, many by the hourly workforce within our plants, using capital project funds that they themselves could spend on projects of their choosing.

Granting funds to hourly employees to be spent on capital projects brought out their creativity, encouraged them to be more proactive, and showed them in a tangible way that they mattered to the success of the company. This helped us be more competitive, and provided funds to reinvest in and grow our business.

Create an environment of servant leadership and a culture of continuous improvement to build competitive advantage. Companies who do not continually improve will be left behind. Those that do will win the competitive race in the long run.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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