If you run a business or manage a significant number of staff, you know that your attention is being pulled in a million directions at once. Did we underschedule today? Should we be hiring more? Are we going over budget? There’s always something new to deal with.
But with so many problems to solve every day to keep the business running smoothly, it’s easy to forget about the frontline employees who make it all possible. If they’re not consistently learning, growing, and getting better at their jobs, then it’s nearly impossible for the customer experience to improve over time. Even worse, if your staff are disengaged and turning over at a high rate, you’re almost certain to provide a worse experience over time, since you constantly have new people starting from scratch with no understanding of what makes your business successful.
That’s the problem servant leadership looks to solve. Servant leadership is a management philosophy that reimagines the role of the boss as one who serves their team rather than leads them. Proponents argue that by focusing more on what they can do to make their team successful rather than vice versa, leaders can build a more cohesive, autonomous, motivated workforce, which will ultimately get better outcomes for the business.
What is servant leadership?
Management guru Robert K. Greenleaf came up with the servant leadership concept in a 1970 essay. The key premise is that an effective leader is a “servant first,” whose purpose is to help his team become “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.” Servant leaders focus on skills like empathy, listening, and community-building to inspire their team.
That’s not the traditional conception of what a leader looks like. Most imagine a cool-headed commander, expertly directing his subordinates and doling out precise orders. But servant leaders flip tradition on its head by seeking their team’s perspective, involving them in the decision-making process, and prioritizing their needs. The goal is to drive more inner motivation and sense of ownership over the company’s results for team members .
Besides improving performance, the servant leadership model can also help businesses improve retention. That’s a huge benefit — research shows it costs nearly 20% of an employee’s yearly salary to find their replacement. Not to mention, when you lose an employee, you also lose all the knowledge and experience they’ve accumulated at your company — that can take months or more to build back up in their replacement. But with hourly staff reporting that even simple benefits like enhanced training and flexible scheduling would make them substantially less likely to seek a new job, it’s easy to see how an organizational mindset shift to servant leadership can boost to retention.
Examples of servant leadership: 3 companies who put the philosophy into action
Servant leadership can be especially powerful in the service industry, where employees often feel underappreciated and turnover is higher. But what does it look like in practice? Here are three examples of companies who have embraced the model:
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has long promoted the principles in line with the servant leadership model, once remarking that the best way to build a successful company is to “link shareholder value with value for the employees.”
His company also put those values into action to by giving hourly employees substantially better benefits than the average business, including access to stock options, healthcare, and even college tuition reimbursement. The company is also well known for holding several open forums each year where employees have the opportunity to speak candidly with management, ask questions, and voice their concerns.
As a leader in the hotel industry, Marriott has long held a reputation for excellent service. That wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the company as an employer. 50% of Marriott’s general managers started out as hourly employees, demonstrating that the hotel chain isn’t just retaining workers — it’s preparing them to move through the ranks and grow into new roles.
Much of this can be attributed to Marriott’s intense focus on training. Every new employee receives 90 days of education before their first day on the job, and for their first 30 days, new hires have a mentor assigned to them who can answer their questions and provide on-the-job training as needed. Aside from the obvious benefit of ensuring new hires know how to do their jobs well, Marriott is also showing each employee that they care enough about their success enough to invest serious time and money into training.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
When Cheryl Bachelder took over as CEO of Popeyes in 2007, it was a troubled time for the chain. Sales results were inconsistent and the company had been through four CEOs in seven years. Even worse, management was feuding with one of its most important stakeholders: the franchise owners running Popeyes restaurants.
Rather than dismiss the franchise owners as a nuisance like so many others at Popeyes headquarters, Cheryl decided to embrace servant leadership and put their needs first. She drew up a plan for the Popeyes turnaround and took it on the road, presenting her ideas to franchise owners, getting their feedback, and working with them to tweak them. The results? Eight years of sustained growth and a stronger, more collaborative relationship between Popeyes and its franchise owners.
While working with franchise owners is obviously different than managing hourly staff, the principle still applies — any time you’re trying to collaborate, you’re more likely to succeed if you treat the other side as equals and not as an inconvenience.
Are you ready to serve?
It may sound radical to have managers think more about serving than leading, but in many ways it’s based on a concept most people accept: The better you treat people, the better they’re likely to treat you in return. In the workplace, that means increased motivation to collaborate and solve problems. So while full-on servant leadership may not be the right management model for every business, most could stand to at least borrow elements of it — especially companies with turnover issues.