Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 18, 2021.
Have you ever thought about various leadership styles and their effectiveness? An Oct. 2 article in Entrepreneur magazine is headlined, “Why servant leadership is becoming the leadership style of the future.” I agree.
An excellent example of servant leadership in action is at Saxbys, a company that today operates 23 fast casual cafes. During a May 2015 interview with Nick Bayer, founder and CEO of Saxbys, he said, “I personally am an absolute zealot of the mentality of ‘servant leadership.’ Organizations work best when they are upside down.”
Bayer continued, “Our cafe managers are the CEOs of their businesses. All the people at headquarters exist to serve our cafe 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 [respective] teams. Their job is to make life better for their guests every single day.”
Bayer focuses on the development of his frontline employees – those that make an impression on his guests when they buy their morning coffee and muffin.
When I was chief operating officer of PQ Corporation, we changed our culture to one focused on continuous improvement. To make this initiative sustainable, we adopted elements of servant leadership before we knew the term existed.
We empowered all employees throughout the organization, including hourly employees at our production plants, to identify and implement improvement projects within their area of responsibility. If a project was beyond an employee’s approval authority, the project would be presented for consideration to the individual who had the authority to approve it. This helped employees develop a sense of ownership in what they did, rather than just go through the motions each day.
At our plants, supervisors and plant managers became coaches and counselors to their direct reports. Employees were taught how to determine root causes of problems. They were given the freedom to pursue improvement projects within their area of responsibility.
We gave the operators and mechanics of each production unit at our plants $50,000 in capital annually to spend on improvement projects that they identified. These projects had some of the highest financial returns of any projects undertaken by the company. We plowed the savings into improving our competitiveness, growing the company and increasing dividends to our shareholders.
I recall two production operators from our Anderson, Indiana plant proudly making a presentation at corporate headquarters on the scope and financial results of an improvement project they had undertaken. This was their first time making such a presentation, so they were coached by their management on how to do so. Their presentation was just as professional as those given by engineers who worked on similar projects.
By trusting these Anderson production operators to identify their own improvement projects and implement them, we gave them the opportunity to expand their skills and develop a sense of ownership in what they did. This paid huge benefits in the way they went about their jobs each day.
Servant leadership is an effective leadership style because it develops current and future leaders within the company, and it helps create a sense of ownership in what employees do. It’s a significant competitive differentiator.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.