Since BRC began almost 27 years ago, we have managed the company as servant leaders, electing to be employees of the company and re-investing all of the profit back into benefits and infrastructure. Over the years, we have been extremely blessed to have attracted some exceptional servant leaders into our executive staff. As we looked at developing a mid-level career training program however, we realized that not everyone that is technically capable to manage has the people skills necessary to be a good servant leader. In fact, our experience over the years has shown that to a large degree, good servant leaders are born and not made.
Like many other mid-management training programs we require mid-level managers to attend executive level meetings, board meetings, budget meetings, etc. so that they get a taste of what its like to step back and adopt that “10,000 foot view” of the company. Many times this is difficult for mid-level managers because they feel like they are losing control if they don’t have their fingers in every little aspect of a program. Running a company, however that has many diverse goals is much different than running a program which normally has a single goal therefore the tasks to succeed at each don’t necessarily scale directly. Now add to that the requirement that the individual love people enough to understand that he/she is not a manager of the employees under their control but rather their servant (again that seems like a lack of control and goes counter to conventional business wisdom) and the servant leader training task is multiplied many times.
So how do you train servant leaders? BRC’s owners and executive staff strongly believe that given the right environment and support most employees will excel at their jobs. This translates directly to happy customers. Normal business training views the establishment of strong processes (rules) as the method whereby one creates the optimal working environment for employees. In other words like children, set strong boundaries and allow managers to excel working within those boundaries. But rules and boundaries are designed to restrict activity…not enhance it. To train servant leaders you must remove boundaries and allow the manager to love unconditionally across it, especially since solving many employee issues involve factors that arise on the edge of or even outside of them.
From my experience, I recommend that the first step is to make sure that the owners and executive staff lead by example and provide the candidates in your mid-level training programs with ample opportunities to see servant-leader interactions played out in the company’s day-to-day operations. Second you must institutionalize the idea of servant leadership at all levels in your organization. There are many ways to do this through stories in the company newsletter, speeches at company meetings and functions and through poster campaigns at company offices. Finally, we have have found that some people are “Naturals”. At BRC we tend to look for those people that have that natural talent for serving others. Look for the person that constantly volunteers to participate in community activities, the company health, welfare and morale activities, etc. These people generally are not complainers who believe they are entitled. Rather they are people that go above and beyond in their job when asked without asking for something in return. They participate in company activities like holiday parties, Halloween dress-up, door-decorating contests, walk-a-thons, and other group morale-building activities within the company. They are the employees that don’t demand their way but work to support the company’s way, no matter what it happens to be.
Our new training program uses the “belt” system much like 6-sigma training to gauge an employee’s technical, and people skills. For example an in-depth knowledge of the jobs executives do is one belt level, participation in company service activities is another belt level and the planning and executing of those service activities is another. To enter the program an employee must be recommended or sponsored by a current senior executive who then agrees to mentor that employee through the process from beginning to end.
I like this model because those of us that have been blessed with the opportunity to start businesses MUST give something back to the community and the nation. The pyramid concept of business in which employees work for the sole benefit of the shareholders is not only outdated, it is bad business. The better I make the environment (i.e. benefits, activities, work environment, etc.) the better my employees make the company. This is true servant leadership and my hope is that more small business leaders in our community will adopt some kind of servant-leader model.