Service-based leadership is a style of leadership that allows the leader to achieve excellence through the committed involvement of his or her employees. With service-based leadership, the attitude and primary motivation of the leader is service to others—to customers, employees, and shareholders of the company.
This approach to leadership naturally creates relationships—the deep and abiding bonds that sustain the efforts of the company. This outward focus of the leader sets up a dynamic where:
- Employees are continually recognized,
- There is an open flow of ideas, opinions, and information,
- Initiative and risk are highly regarded,
- Problem discovery and solution is a focus while placing blame is unimportant,
- Every employee feels energized and part of the team and is valued for his or her contribution,
- Prestige is derived from performance and contribution, not title,
- Customers are treated well because employees are treated well, and
- The energy and initiative of all employees is focused on the common effort.
With service-based leadership, you will find that good customer service to both internal and external customers is effortless. Less energy is expended in processing complaints, grievances, and conflicts. Employees are happier, work is more fun, and everyone’s job is easier.
Building Strong Relationships
Maggie was a retired schoolteacher starting a second career. She applied for a sales associate position with a well-known hotel and conference center. While she had no sales experience, her maturity, calm demeanor, and articulate style impressed the director of sales.
The position of sales associate is challenging. In addition to selling the facility and its services to the local community and industry, it is important to have a good working relationship with the hotel’s operating departments. Ultimately, they are the ones who must execute the promises of the sales staff.
In short order, Maggie proved adept at winning new business for the hotel. She had a knack for meeting new people and establishing a sense of trust. Much of it came from her genuine, down-to-earth nature. She was short on hype and easy promises, but long on establishing meaningful relationships built upon commitment, confidence, and trust. Her clients knew that she was true to her word.
But as strong as she was in finding new business, she was even stronger at building those key relationships with hotel department heads and line employees enabling her to ensure that promises were kept and expectations met. Inevitably things would fall through the cracks and some meeting room was not set up properly for one of her clients. Because she always double-checked arrangements, Maggie would find the problem and seek help to correct it. Because she had taken the time to develop good working relations with the housekeeping, maintenance, and banquet staffs, she never had problems finding someone willing to help. As one porter said of her, “She always asks so nicely, there is no way to say no.”
Maggie was an outstanding success as a sales associate. In two years she increased her hotel bookings by 18.3 percent, and more importantly, trend lines promised even more future business from her many satisfied clients. Not surprisingly, when the director of sales was transferred to another property out of state, Maggie was asked by her general manager to take over the position.
Your success in balancing the needs of those you serve lies in ensuring that you build strong relationships with individuals. How do you do this? Begin by:
- Treating everyone you meet with courtesy, respect, and good cheer,
- Focusing on each person you deal with as if he or she were the most important person in the world,
- Taking the time to get to know people, sharing your time and attention with them,
- Learning about other people’s jobs and the challenges and difficulties they face,
- Keeping promises and following through on commitments,
- Being principled, showing fairness, and demonstrating integrity, and
- Recognizing the ultimate value of people in all you do.
Relationships depend upon how you view yourself in relation to others. If you see yourself as separate and apart from your constituencies, if you view others as the means to your end, if your vision and goals lack a broader purpose than your own needs and ambitions, establishing meaningful relationships will be impossible. On the other hand, when you see yourself as part of a team with a shared mission, then a sense of service will be an intrinsic part of your service team relationships.
The difference is your attitude, your motives, and your approach to dealing with others. Since all of these things are within your power to change, establishing a service-based approach to leadership by building strong relationships is totally up to you. To the extent that you make your employees a part of your efforts, teach them, and share your goals and challenges with them, they will become willing helpers in your quest for quality and service. Imagine the benefit of ten people trying to meet goals and budgets instead of one. Think of the natural enthusiasm that can be mustered when your benchmarks become theirs. Recognize the pride of accomplishment they will feel when the team not only meets, but exceeds expectations. This is truly a formula for success.
In simplest terms, when you serve your employees, they will serve your customers, who by their continued enthusiastic patronage will serve the needs of your shareholders.
Becoming a Service-Based Leader
By conscientiously following and practicing the principles of leadership, by working to develop the traits of service-based leadership, you can become an effective leader in any situation. As a leader your focus should be on those employees who make up your team.
Leading Your Team. Line employees are the most important staff a company has because they interface directly with customers. Their daily performance in meeting customers’ needs establishes and maintains a company’s good name and reputation. Clearly their performance is critical to a company’s success.
Shoddy, surly, disorganized, and inconsistent service are clear signs of a lack of leadership. Employees are not to blame; rather it is management that must be held accountable. Conversely, high standards of service flow naturally from effective leaders. Your team’s performance is a direct result of your leadership. This leadership must include taking personal responsibility, possessing the will to lead, owning your failures, effectively utilizing your resources, and knowing your limits.
The Freedom of Taking Personal Responsibility. Personal freedom is often thought of as the absence of responsibility. In this respect, no one is free. Everyone is responsible for and to someone else. There is, however, a freedom that comes from accepting personal responsibility for oneself and one’s sphere of influence.
When you blame no one else for the challenges you face, when you realize that where you stand today is the result of all your past decisions and indecision, you look to the true source of any difficulties. It is never the undefined “they.” It is always the ever-present “I.”
Realizing this is the true source of your freedom, instead of being buffeted to and fro by uncontrollable forces, you accept the power of your own authority. For good or ill, you are the one in charge of your life.
For the leader this means that, as you seek opportunity, you also take responsibility for all aspects of your duties. Size up those around you—your superiors, peers, and employees. If they demonstrate responsibility, learn to depend upon them. If they don’t, find ways to compensate for their inadequacies. In the case of your employees, take action as necessary.
In the end, you are the only one responsible for your success or failure. If something goes wrong, there is always more you could have done. In the case of the truly unexpected event, it’s not so much what went wrong as how you respond to it. Instead of blaming circumstances or others, take responsibility to make things right. By accepting this degree of personal responsibility, you free yourself from the unpredictability of life and those around you.
The Will to Lead. Taking personal responsibility equips you to assume a leadership role. But the will to lead is a far cry from being willing to lead. A good number of people are willing to accept positions of leadership. But accepting and exercising leadership are two very different matters.
Having the will to lead implies a commitment to face whatever challenges may present themselves. Simply put, it’s the will to make things happen. Consider the following example.
Bob was the front desk manager of an older hotel. Hospitality was his profession, but running was his passion. Each day at lunchtime, regardless of the weather, he took a five-mile run. After running, he used the employee locker room to change and shower before returning to work.
The poor sanitation and maintenance of the locker rooms disgusted Bob, but for a long time he said nothing. Finally, he had enough and announced at a staff meeting that the employees deserved better and that he was going to petition the general manager to clean and fix up the locker rooms.
One of the other supervisors commented that it would be a waste of time and that they would quickly return to their former condition. He said that the employees didn’t care and wouldn’t keep them up. Bob responded that it didn’t matter whether the employees cared or not because he did!
Over the next few weeks with the general manager’s blessing, Bob organized the maintenance and housekeeping staffs to scrape and repaint walls, strip and refinish the floor, replace broken and unserviceable lockers, and improve the lighting. Then he got the general manager to assign different departments the rotating duty of keeping the locker rooms clean. Finally, he checked them daily for several months to ensure that they were being properly maintained.
The end result was improved employee morale and a changed attitude about their locker rooms. Employees did care; they just needed someone to lead the way and to overcome the erroneous notion that they didn’t. They needed Bob’s “will to make things happen.”
Owning Your Failures. When you or those you lead fail in any way, don’t make excuses. While there may be mitigating circumstances, you must take responsibility for the failure. Whether you didn’t plan or train well enough, didn’t devote the proper time or resources to the matter, didn’t establish priorities, or underestimated the situation, the bottom line is that you failed. But failure can become your most valuable learning tool.
Rather than casting about for others to blame, carefully analyze what led to the failure and see what you might have done differently to achieve a positive outcome. This approach accomplishes two very important things:
- You establish your personal responsibility and authority, and
- You analyze and learn from your mistakes.
Do not be afraid to make mistakes. No one is error free, and those claiming to be take few risks. Leadership is distinguished by leading, not by hanging back in the pack. When you step forward to lead, you risk the chance of highly visible missteps. Remember that experience and trial-and-error can be life’s most powerful instructors.
Often the greatest lessons are learned from mistakes. Winning breeds a sense of supremacy and complacency; whereas losing encourages critical review. Keep this in mind as you blunder along the way. While I’ve had some success in my career, I can honestly say that my most memorable lessons came from mistakes and failure. Here’s an example.
Years ago in my first hotel, I took a proprietary interest in all aspects of the operation to the point of guarding its assets as if they were my own. While caring about one’s operation is laudable, in one case I clearly lost sight of the larger picture.
One busy football weekend, I was monitoring activity near the front entrance. A gentleman passed me carrying one of our beer glasses. I approached him and politely asked him if I could return the glass to the bar for him. One thing led to another until we had a full-blown confrontation over a 79-cent glass.
In hindsight this upsetting incident was unnecessary. Glassware loss from breakage and pilferage is part of the cost of doing business. The time and emotional aggravation related to this incident were not worth the insignificant cost of the glass. Add to this the complete alienation of a customer and all the people to whom he related his “horror” story
Since that time, I have come to understand that there are a number of “costs” in business that should be monitored and controlled in a systematic way, not by personal confrontation. This lesson learned was a small one, but one I shall never forget.
Effectively Using Your Limited Resources. There is far more to do every day than you can possibly accomplish. Where you apply your time and energy as a leader is of critical importance to your team’s efforts and success. Avoid frittering away your personal resources on marginal activities. Focus on the important things that will make a difference in your team’s performance.
To do this you should make a list of the key items on which to focus and have a long-term plan of improvement for your operation, as well as a list of needed projects to accomplish. Despite the daily distractions and crises that inevitably come up, keep your focus on those key items. When things slow down or windows of time open up, refocus yourself and your team on those important goals.
It’s also helpful to get away from your operations, even for just a day. Being away from the day-to-day problems will give a broader perspective on the issues you face and will help you recognize where to apply yourself.
Recognizing the Limits of Your Influence. Being an effective leader requires that you understand the parameters of your authority and the extent of your sphere of influence. For instance, what should you do when you report to a superior who lacks essential leadership skills?
Remember the freedom of taking personal responsibility. You cannot control your boss’ skill or lack of it, but instead of getting upset, focus on what you can control. Do everything in your power to be the best leader you can be. Try to insulate your team from the worst effects of the situation. Do not disparage your boss in front of your employees. They will size up the situation quickly enough and will respect you even more for not trying to make him look bad.
Possibly your efforts will have a positive effect on your boss. If your area of the operation is performing well because of your leadership, it may cause him to take notice. Maybe your boss will become curious enough to ask about the secrets of your success. In any case, focus on your own efforts. If the situation should become untenable, remember that you retain ultimate control over your future and can make the appropriate decision at any time. Understanding the limits of your influence also entails the recognition that you have more impact and control over your employees than you do over your other constituencies. Your customers are removed from your direct influence since they are served by your employees. For the most part your influence on customers is secondhand.
Farthest removed from your influence are your company’s shareholders. Unless as owners they take a direct role in your company, they are often absent from the operation. Their role and status with the company is still of major importance, but their interests are served at a distance.
So as you work to accomplish your company’s goals, concentrate on those nearest at hand and those over whom you have the greatest influence—the employees on your service team. If they do their jobs with enthusiasm and a sense of service, the needs of your other constituencies will also be met.
The Ultimate Value of People
Without employees there would be no successful business leaders.
Without customers there would be no money to pay employees.
Without owners willing to risk their capital there would be no businesses to hire employees.
The distinguishing characteristic of these three statements is that they all involve people. And while every person is an individual, unique in background, experience, and education, the great majority has a common set of needs as they negotiate their worlds. They:
Wish to be treated well, with dignity and respect,
Want value for their labor given or money spent, in other words, they don’t want to feel cheated,
Want to know what’s going on and appreciate timely and accurate information that affects them,
Prefer to trust and be trusted,
Appreciate kindness and generosity of spirit, especially when unexpected,
Recognize someone who is principled and whose words and actions are grounded in values, and
Want to be recognized for who they are, not lumped into some great unknown, and often unnoticed, mass.
While any person can hold a position of authority, true leadership and its attendant success flows naturally from that person who recognizes the ultimate value of people in all he or she does.
While this seems trite, my experience has clearly confirmed that the majority of managers and supervisors do not intuitively understand this critical point. Many are so wrapped up in their own ambitions and agendas, they seem oblivious to those around them. And this is a recipe for personal and professional failure as demonstrated by the following story.
Several years back, I was at the checkout counter of the local outlet of a national home improvement chain. As I placed my purchases on the counter to be scanned, the cashier began complaining about the lack of adequate cashiers on duty and then rambled on, expressing a general dissatisfaction with her bosses and the company. Not anxious to know all her issues with her employer, I was noncommittal in my responses; yet on and on she went. I couldn’t wait to get away.
While I was in the midst of a major do-it-yourself home renovation and making frequent trips for supplies and materials, I began driving an extra mile or two to a competitor store where the selection and pricing was comparable, but the staff seemed more contented and committed to service.
Having discovered the new, happier store, I spent and continue to spend a considerable sum of money with them. The disgruntled employee may have been an isolated case, yet service-based leaders should have been available for her concerns or, by being more closely engaged with the staff, discovered her “attitude” problem and resolved it without losing a potentially good customer.
In today’s busy world where convenience, location, pricing, and technology drive many purchase decisions, the human touch is often overlooked. Yet I know half a dozen employees at my favorite home improvement store by name and have periodically written letters of commendation to their company when they have been particularly helpful.
This is the way I prefer to do business. While I may not be in the majority, I can’t help but believe there are many others like me who enjoy friendly human contact. When major corporations are vigorously contending for a few percentage points of market share, the human touch inherent in service-based leadership should not be overlooked. People matter! And true leaders understand this.
An Evolutionary Process
Developing sound leadership skills is an evolutionary process. No one is perfect. Errors are made, but if you face them you will learn from your mistakes. The gradual accumulation over time of an understanding of what makes people tick, of what motivates and de-motivates, of what does and doesn’t work, will eventually develop into a storehouse of common sense.
This accumulated wisdom should bring the leader to a state of profound humility. What gets accomplished is not so much a result of your efforts, but the efforts of your willing and committed employees. Your singular role is to articulate the vision, provide training and support, and then stand aside while coaching and cheerleading.
In reviewing a career, what often stands out are not your accomplishments, their luster having diminished with distance, rather it is the meaningful relationships forged with employees, coworkers, customers, and bosses that will remain bright in your memory.
Thinking about this points directly and dramatically to where you should focus your attention, not inwardly on yourself and your ambitions, but outwardly on the quality of your interactions with others. This is the crux of service-based leadership.