Servant Leadership: Putting People First

Each month The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) asks leadership experts questions about servant leadership. Our topic for February is how servant leaders prioritize people and create people-centric organizations. This month’s servant-leader experts are:

RCLC: Servant-Leaders create people-centric organizations where both customers and employees are valued. What are the benefits of putting people first?

Skip Prichard: Some time ago, I had the opportunity to watch a professional baseball team at spring training. One of the coaches was all about metrics. He didn’t know the team well, but he knew if the pitcher was off by a fraction of a second. On the other hand, the head coach was a connector. He loved his players. He seemed to know everything about them. It wasn’t surprising to learn that he was the one who showed up for the players when times were tough. He was there when one lost his mother. Watching him with the team, I could see how he knew just when to push them and how to get the best out of them. When the team needed to come together that season during a difficult game, who do you think made that happen? That people-centric coach. When you know someone cares, you go the extra mile. You do what others said was impossible.

Among many other benefits, people-centric organizations experience:

  • Higher employee retention
  • A culture of positivity and empowerment
  • Higher sales and a more profitable bottom line
  • Increased customer loyalty
  • Increased innovation and creative problem solving

In the early 1900s management consultant Frederick Taylor treated people like widgets and objects. In the decades since, enlightened companies have realized that people-first cultures achieve better results through empowerment and encouragement. We are not widgets, assets or human capital. Companies that fail to recognize that people power the organization will struggle, even more so with the Millennial generation.

RCLC: Could you share a specific experience when you observed an organization putting people first?

Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper: A great example of an organization putting people first is TDIndustries. Jack Lowe, Sr. invited all the Employees to his home in small groups to study Robert Greenleaf’s essay, “The Servant as Leader,” and talk about who they wanted to be as a company. When an Employee questioned who was really profiting from the company, Jack changed the word “Employee” to “Partner” and made the company Employee owned. And when Jack Lowe, Jr. was asked about situations where Employee choices affect job profitability, he responded, “Put yourself in the Customer’s place. If we should rework a job to make it right, that is what we should do. The most important thing is to develop mutual trust with all our Customers and Trade Partners. Trust is earned by how we perform.” Everyone left a few inches taller as they felt pride and trust in their leaders’ intentions to put others first.

RCLC: When people are prioritized, do they begin to feel entitled?

Skip Prichard: Let me be somewhat contrarian: I hope so. I’m a huge fan of The Ritz-Carlton. From the minute I arrive outside, I have high expectations. I feel the positive anticipation of a brand that has repeatedly made me feel welcome. Do I feel entitled? Yes, I do. I feel entitled to feel like royalty during my stay. And that feeling keeps me coming back at every opportunity. Similarly, I hope employees feel entitled to a safe workplace, one where they can make an impact. Now, quite obviously, some people have a pathological, narcissistic issue with entitlement. That type of behavior generally is rooted in psychological issues and isn’t created simply by prioritizing individuals.

Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper: We have had the privilege of serving Bridgeway Capital Management in Houston for the past six years and watched as John Montgomery, the owner of BCM, consistently put his Partners first. As a result, he has grown their awareness that to be put first is both an honor and a responsibility to make sure that the business is treating Customers, Venders and each other with fairness and appreciation. We see people lean into lifting up each other rather than taking advantage of the trust they have been given. They seem to grow faster when trusted because they realize the vulnerability that comes with mutual trust.

RCLC: What advice would you give to a leader who feels focusing on the profits and the bottom line is a better strategy?

Skip Prichard: Often we get advice from people who haven’t been in our shoes. They don’t understand. I’ve been a CEO of three different companies ranging in revenue from $200M to $1.5B+. I know what the pressure feels like to hit numbers. I’m not saying this to impress you, because I’m sure you have your own experience, but I have had to walk the walk. And I firmly believe, and have witnessed, servant leadership leading to better results and longer-term success. For many naysayers and doubters, the only way they will believe is through the bottom line. That’s okay. When the results start, many of these people will become converts with an even greater passion for the ideas.

Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper: It is clear to me that leaders who put a focus on profit first have not awakened to the huge momentum that comes when Employees are put first. At Whole Foods, for example, they work in teams that make important decisions about what to carry and how to best serve each Customer. We love our local store and know the names of the team members who serve us. There is a special relationship that is so valuable. They cater our parties with fresh flowers from Costa Rica, and we love knowing that we are helping families there grow businesses that support their needs. There is a wonderful, healthy synergy of win/win support that inspires mutual trust. And when you look at the business results over time, those companies who put their people first outperform their competition by margins of 10 to 1 or even more.

RCLC: From the CEO to the frontlines, The Ritz-Carlton is a service organization. Do all levels of an organization need to commit to servant leadership in order for it to be effective?

Skip Prichard: No. That may be a surprising answer, but the truth is that it takes time to instill a true servant leadership culture. Pockets of the company will lead the way; others will follow as they see its impact. Some people will resist it; others will ignore it. A small group of committed servant leaders can infuse the organization with a spirit that cannot be ignored and will overwhelm detractors. When a tipping point occurs, the organization begins to experience a unique culture that is noticeable from afar. Then, the critics and naysayers will stand out in a negative way. They end up leaving the organization.

Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper: We find that the spirit of servant leadership is very contagious. Each person is inspired to be their best and serve others in the best possible way as they experience how they enjoy a culture based on servant leadership. When I am lifted up to perform at my highest and best levels and consistently appreciated for my best and most creative work, it inspires me and those around me to join this effort. We see each other take this spirit home and interact with family in these same appreciative ways. It literally inspires greater well-being in partners,teams and families. We often have our children here helping us and it is fun to see how they take ownership of some important work and add great value for all of us. Wouldn’t we all like to be inspired, appreciated and empowered to be our best self and do our best work?

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