True leaders understand that their role is to serve others.
That sounds like a contradiction, right? When we think of the typical boss/employee model, it’s very clear which direction serving should go.
You’re the boss, and others aren’t. So they should serve you.
The reality is that this isn’t sustainable.
Let’s start with the reality that your business exists to serve its customers. Or your nonprofit organization exists to improve the community.
If you lose sight of this fact, then your customers, beneficiaries, and donors will quickly disappear. Your partners will go somewhere else because they’re not getting their needs met either.
It’s not all about money. Money happens to be much easier to measure than less tangible things like customer satisfaction and improved quality of life. But we all know of many situations where we’ll stop being a customer not because the pricing wasn’t fair, but because they didn’t treat us right. Product quality was lacking. Customer service was a mess. They didn’t respect us.
We all get the concept that the role of a business is to serve its customers. It’s a little harder to understand how service relates to retaining your business suppliers, channel partners, and so on.
I classify all these as “partners” in various ways, because they’re entities we don’t directly control, but are necessary for our business to thrive. A nonprofit could easily think of its donors as partners, perhaps feeling uncomfortable with the language of calling them “customers.”
If you need something from them, then they’re going to need something from you. Sometimes money changes hands, but there are always less-tangible factors that create a sustainable relationship.
So you have to attend to those needs. At times, you even have to put them ahead of your own needs in order to get the proper balance of give-and-take.
That’s serving them, perhaps through communication, collaboration, responsiveness, or other interactions.
Finally, let’s talk about your employees, volunteers, and even word-of-mouth supporters. You’d like to think that by giving people a paycheck you’re absolved of any responsibility to attend to their needs as individuals, but that’s not true. With a paycheck you just rent their attendance for eight hours a day or whatever, but you’re not getting their energy, passion and engagement.
And, most important, they can just walk away at any time.
This means that they have more needs that you have to pay attention to. Not just a benefits package — that’s nice but insufficient. You want their dedication, inspiration, passion, loyalty. Those come from the heart and are almost impossible to measure.
What does it mean to serve your employees?
It’s remarkably simple, but not easy. For instance, your people need to come to work excited each day because they feel a sense of purpose. You can’t just declare that the purpose (and goals and tasks) is whatever they want it to be — that’s nothing at all and your organization will quickly fly apart.
They’re craving your leadership. Which is your role, right? They want to know how their work makes a difference, how it matters in the big picture.
They need to know whether they’re on track or not, which means individual and team feedback.
They’ll be building upon your confidence for a better future. Even when you’re not entirely confident yourself, your vision for progress and contribution will help them feel like their effort isn’t wasted.
They’ll expect your well-considered decisions. Presumably, you have some wisdom, more data, and more balance. And it’s your job.
They need to see some personal compassion. Employees primarily leave a job because of the relationship with their boss, which means that they’re not feeling the empathy and understanding every human needs.
This is what it looks like to serve your team!
And this is why “servant leadership” is such an interesting concept. You can be both servant AND leader.
To create a sustainable organization, you MUST be.
Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins, specializing in companies committed to improving society and the world. His website is www.smallfish.us