Saturday, August 30, 2014

Getting by Giving: The Power of Servant Leadership

I was recently contacted by a company that I had worked with several years ago.  They were undertaking a large project and wanted me to play an important role.  As we discussed the project, I grew excited.  It was an opportunity to make a meaningful difference for a group of people I liked.

Toward the end of the conversation, there was an awkward pause from my contact at the firm.  He said, "I guess we need to talk about your compensation."  His tone suggested that he was surprised that I hadn't raised the matter.

My response was immediate and honest.  "I haven't given the matter any thought.  You've always dealt with me fairly.  Whatever you feel is appropriate will be fine."

For years, I've been told this is no way to do business.  And for years, I haven't lacked for business.  Indeed, in a career that will hit its 30th anniversary next year, I can only identify one occasion in which the other side did not behave fairly in such a situation.  In business as in romance, it's amazing how well relationships work out when each side prioritizes the other.

Servant leadership is the notion that one best leads by meeting the needs of others.  As Hess points out, our stereotype of successful leaders is that they are strong, charismatic figures who bend others to their wills.  Rather, he finds, effective leaders lead by example, prioritizing employees and ensuring that their work is meaningful.  "Humble wins," he observes.  When employees are emotionally engaged, they are more loyal and productive.  "In fact," Hess notes, "the relationship between high performance, high employee engagement, and how you treat employees is compelling.  My research clearly demonstrates that employee satisfaction drives customer satisfaction and loyalty."

A fascinating New York Times article on Adam Grant suggests that giving may be the secret to getting ahead.  What Grant has found in his research is that employees are more productive when they perceive a giving purpose to their work.  In one study at a call center, where employees are notoriously unmotivated and turnover is extensive, he brought in a speaker who described the benefits that he had received from the funds generated by the calls.  Over the subsequent months, productivity among the telemarketers skyrocketed.

As the article points out, Grant's research suggests that "The greatest untapped source of a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other people's lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves."

An interesting study found six servant leadership themes among successful work groups:  1) holding self and others accountable for results; 2) supporting and resourcing others; 3) engaging in honest self-evaluation before assessing others; 4) fostering collaboration; 5) communicating with clarity; and 6) valuing and appreciating others.  The intriguing finding is that servant leadership enhances teamwork:  people give their best when their leaders are giving.

Some of the most successful money managers I've known and worked with have thrived in team contexts.  They bring on junior talent, mentor their apprentices, and in turn benefit from the productivity of those junior teammates.  Contributing to a team and each other's growth provides a motivation in trading that transcends daily profits and losses.  As in the military, discipline is much easier to sustain if you know you're responsible for your buddies.

Adam Grant points out that we can approach our work as a taker (trying to get as much as we can from others); as a matcher (trading with others by giving and getting), or as a giver (seeking ways to help others).  In a world of ever-growing interdependence, when people enter the giver mode, the pie becomes larger for all.

Further Reading:  Living the Purposeful Life