Servant Leadership is an Art—Practice It!

”The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

Max De Pree, Herman Miller Inc.

I remember the moment I ‘crossed over’ to management. It wasn’t when I accepted the position, or the first department head meeting. It was the first team meeting I called. We all sat down, all eyes turned to me in expectation. The team craved leadership, as the position had been vacant for over a year. From that moment I made it my mission to be the best leader I could be. I became a student of leadership, coaching, mentoring and employee engagement. Servant Leadership resonated with me immediately, describing the kind of manager or boss I would want, and aspire to be. This style correlates directly with my core beliefs and values.

Servant leaders have a serve-first mindset focused on empowering those who work for them. They show humility instead of brandishing authority, and look to enhance the development of their staff.

The servant leader seeks to align an employee’s sense of purpose with the organization mission—empowering staff to perform at a high level. Employees feel engaged and purpose-driven. The benefits are lower turnover and improved productivity.

As the name implies, servant leadership starts with an unselfish mindset. It is less about you, more about the team. With the proper motivation a servant leader will behave in a humble, serving manner, and really that is where the rubber hits the road. We can say what we want, but ultimately we are judged on our behavior. For the servant leader, behavior isn’t just what gets done, but how it gets done.

Best Practices

First and foremost, successful servant leadership starts with the desire to serve our staff. This approach begins with the onboarding phase for each employee.

After initial introductions, the servant leader should ask for the new hire’s observations, impressions and opinions. This sends the message that the employee’s thoughts are valued.

The servant leader keeps the focus on talent development in several ways. Leveraging employees’ strengths can lead to better performance and higher satisfaction as staff work on tasks they are passionate about.

Another way is to selectively give power so employees can lead certain projects and take ownership, thus building confidence and capabilities.

Letting go can be hard, but is a crucial requirement for effective servant leadership. Leaders are no longer individual performers, they are enablers.

Question Close, Listen Closer

Close listening and searching questions are two core practices of servant leadership.

Servant leaders build relationships with staff by listening closely and asking lots of questions—on anything from the employee’s background to their view on the organization culture and direction. If an employee is struggling, leaders should ask about what could be the cause. Even questions about smaller aspects of operations sends the message that their opinion does matter.

Listening to understand is crucial to get the employees point of view. Servant leaders wait patiently until the person is finished and briefly summarize the thoughts for clarification. This used to be considered common courtesy, but with the rise of technology it has become harder to listen with understanding, and may take concerted effort on the part of the leader.

Encouragement, Humility, Trust

Encouragement is the hallmark expression of a servant leader, and can be a powerful tool. Encouragement and humility should mark every interaction. When employees make mistakes, the leader isn’t scolding them as if they were children.

Instead, the servant leader engages in respectful conversation which demonstrates trust in the employee to make the needed adjustments.

Trust is both a defining characteristic and a defining outcome of servant leadership. Remember, servant leaders are both servant and leader. Though they serve, the dimension of leadership must be present—character and competence. Competence means the leader has a track record of achieving results, with skills that are relevant. Character means results and accomplishments are achieved with integrity and ethics.

Trust is a prerequisite for servant leaders, because the leader must trust that the employees are worth serving, and they, and the organization, will benefit from their service. In turn, servant leadership generates trust in the employees, who may be inspired by their manager’s competence and character and convinced by their manager’s serve-first practice that he or she has their best interests at heart. Trust is one of the means to achieve servant leadership, and it is also an end that is achieved by servant leadership.

Building and Managing Great Teams

No one ever said being a leader is easy. You’re faced with one challenge after another, and overcoming issues within your team is often overwhelming. But here’s the thing: Yes, leading can be challenging—but it shouldn’t be a struggle. We’ve developed four steps you can follow that lay out a proven, practical process for developing a healthy team.

A note of caution: For the process to work, it requires more than lip service. It takes teamwork, trust, dedication, and a commitment to communicating in a way that creates a safe place for team members to share concerns, ideas, and solutions.

Step 1: State Clear Team Goals and Expectations

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”

Yogi Berra

Before you can do anything else, you and your team have to get on the same page about what exceptional teamwork looks like. Unless you get crystal clear, you’re likely to waste time and energy changing behaviors that will have little to no effect on your team’s overall effectiveness. There are seven elements that make a high-performing team, and teams that demonstrate them consistently generally achieve better results more easily.

A high-performance team:

  • Builds a healthy climate.
  • Is cohesive.
  • Has contributing team members pull together toward a common goal.
  • Practices shared leadership in which members take accountability for the team’s effectiveness, participate in decision making, and provide feedback to one another.
  • Has strong group work skills.
  • Is change-compatible.
  • Thinks innovatively.

Step 2: Engage Your Team

Improving the team’s effectiveness shouldn’t rest solely on the leader’s shoulders. Rather, it’s a responsibility that should be shared by the entire team—and that starts with engaging them in the process. To get started, bring the team together and do the following:

Introduce the 7 Elements (see Step 1 above). Start by sharing why you believe it’s so important for the team to have a clear picture of what high-performance teamwork looks like.

Identify strengths and opportunities. This is a great opportunity to spark a meaningful dialogue around the team’s effectiveness as a whole. Start identifying the team’s strengths by asking questions:

  • Which Element resonates the most with you?
  • What are we doing well?

Next, identify opportunities for improvement by focusing the group’s attention on things the team can work on to make it even better than it already is. You can start by asking the following:

  • Which of the 7 Elements represent opportunities for improvement?
  • Which Element should be our initial priority?

Develop an action plan. This is an essential part of the dialogue process; after all, unless your team commits to taking action, your conversation won’t lead anywhere. Now that you’ve identified your top-priority Element for improvement, start crafting your plan by asking:

  • What do we need to do differently in order to improve in this Element?
  • How will we hold each other accountable?

Step 3: Keep Everyone Accountable for Ongoing Team Development

If Steps 1 and 2 are all about getting everyone on the same page and starting a dialogue, Step 3 is about keeping the conversation going. Why? Because meeting once and never following up won’t get you anywhere in the long run. Instead, it’s up to you to make your conversation an ongoing one to increase your team’s chances of making lasting changes. To do so, dedicate 20 minutes every month to reviewing the commitments to action, asking questions like:

  • Which commitments have we lived up to? (Ask for specific examples.)
  • What/who will we recognize and celebrate?
  • What are we not yet doing well? What might be getting in our way?
  • Has anything else come out of this discussion that we should commit to?

Step 4: Celebrate, Reassess, and Repeat

n order to make this process a habit, you have to build it into your team’s culture. After all, the goal is fo your team to embrace this process as part of the everyday job. At this point, you’ve done the important work of identifying issues and coming up with a plan to improve them, and you’ve developed a plan for keeping the conversation open. So, give yourself a round of applause—and then start again! Recognize and celebrate your accomplishment once you’ve targeted and strengthened a specific Element, then move on to the next one by repeating the process.

When you make this process a priority and stick to following through, team members will follow suit. I think you’ll be surprised by what you can achieve together.

5 Questions to Ask When Starting a New Job

The first few months are critical to your long term success. Build positive momentum early on and it can propel you through your tenure. Make some early missteps and you could face an uphill battle for the rest of your time in the job.

The biggest challenge leaders face is staying focused on the right things. It’s the proverbial fire hose, settling in and figuring out how to have an impact. it’s easy to take on too much or waste precious time. It helps to ask these 5 questions to guide your first few months on the job.

How will I create value?

This is the single most important question. Why were you put in this role? What do key stakeholders expect you to accomplish? In what timeframe? How will your progress be assessed? Keep in mind the real answer may not be what you were told when you were recruited. There will be multiple stakeholders to satisfy, not just your boss, and they may have divergent views of what “success” means.

How am I expected to behave?

Unless you have been hired to change the culture of your new organization, you should strive to understand and conform to its most important norms of behavior. Think of culture as the organization’s immune system. It exists, in large measure, to prevent “wrong thinking” and “wrong behaving” from infecting the social organism. So you violate key norms of behavior at your peril; becoming viewed as “not belonging here” can lead to isolation and, ultimately, to derailment. As you seek to understand key norms, keep in mind that they may differ across the organization. It may also depend on the level at which you are operating: success after promotion may depend, in no small measure, on you “showing up” in different ways.

Whose support is critical? 

Your success is likely to depend on people over whom you have no direct authority; so, you need to build alliances. The starting point for doing this is to understand the political landscape of your new organization and learn to navigate it. Who has power and influence? Whose support is crucial and why? Armed with insight into the who, you can focus on how you will secure their backing. Usually this involves more than just building relationships. You need to understand what others are trying to accomplish and how you can help them. Reciprocity is the firmest foundation on which to build allies.

How will I get some early wins?

Leaders in transition energize people by getting early wins — quick, tangible improvements in the organization that create a sense of momentum. Done well, they build your credibility, accelerate your learning, and win you the right to make deeper changes in the organization. So, you need to identify the most promising ways to make a quick, positive impact and then organize to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible.

What skills do I need to develop to excel in this role?

As Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach put it, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” The skills and abilities that got you to this point in your career may not be the ones (or all of the ones) you need to be successful in your new job, and it’s all too easy to fall into the comfort-zone trap. Put another way, to become fully effective in your new role, you will probably have to do some personal development. This doesn’t mean you can’t get off to a good start immediately, but the sooner you understand what new capabilities you need to develop to excel in the role, the better. Failure to grasp this essential point diminishes the potential for future career advancement.

Ask yourself these five questions as you start a new role and keep asking them on a regular basis. Set aside 30 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on whether the answers are still clear or have changed in any way. Doing so will enable you to stay on the right track through your transition and beyond.

Remote Onboarding

 It’s quite possible to onboard new leaders effectively into a remote-working environment. The biggest barrier is probably mindset. We are all being tested to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s no different with virtual onboarding. Here are some principles to guide you.

1. Be crystal clear about short-term objectives.

Like every leader in transition, your new hire needs to quickly figure out how to create value, and that’s even more important during a crisis.

2. Provide a structured learning process.

To accelerate learning in a virtual context, you need to provide information in a more structured manner. Doing so requires paying much more attention to what you include in the upfront “document dump”: organizational charts, financial reports, strategy and project documentation, and the current crisis response plan. Beyond that, you need to help your new hires get a broader and deeper view of the organization and their role in it.

3. Build a (more) robust stakeholder engagement plan.

Your next priority is to help your new hires identify, understand, and build relationships with key stakeholders. When onboarding is virtual, it’s essential to be even more detailed and structured here, too. Start by building a consensus internally about who the new leader’s key stakeholders are and, critically, the order in which the new leader should meet them; these things are often not apparent to new hires themselves.

4. Assign a virtual-onboarding buddy.

Quite a few companies built buddy systems into their pre-crisis onboarding processes. And for new managers coming into remote-working organizations, a buddy is essential. Good buddies play four key roles: (1) They help orient new hires to the business and its context (2) They facilitate connections to people whose support is necessary or helpful (3) They assist with navigation of processes and systems, and (4) They accelerate acculturation by providing insight into “how things get done here.” Of course, you must take care to choose buddies who have the time, ability, and inclination to help, and you need to brief them on how they can be of most assistance. Typically, they should not be in the new leader’s chain of command; they should be peers or others with the “big picture” understanding necessary to be of real help.

5. Facilitate virtual team-building.

Helpful in face-to-face situations, a new-leader assimilation process is essential when onboarding happens remotely. This is a structured process for creating alignment and connection between a leader and their inherited team. A facilitator asks the leader and team members questions to uncover what they would most like to share with and learn about one another. The facilitator summarizes the resulting insights and uses them to guide a conversation between the leader and the team. The good news is that this process can be done effectively through video conferencing.

After COVID: Remote Motivation

Government cannot shut down; citizens need services even more during a crisis. When the pandemic took hold, city staff scrambled to move their teams remote: ensuring staff had tech tools, defined processes, and turned Zoom into a verb (“lets Zoom and talk that over.”)

As the nation begins to open and offices adjust to the “next normal,” will the lessons we learned be for naught? How can cities adapt and use the newfound tools and processes to become more efficient in providing critical services? These are important questions as staff moves from tactical to strategic and long-term work.

Evidence shows people can be more productive working from home. Public agencies lag behind the private sector in reaping the benefits, largely due to a lack of current technology and training. But that takes money, and the motivation to invest in digital, cloud, and remote work capabilities is stifled by a lack of trust that the benefits will be realized.