Taking a servant leadership mindset and turning it into a curriculum and a set of skills can be a challenge, explains Bob Freytag, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.
You have to resist the temptation to treat a servant leadership initiative as just a training intervention and instead see it, ideally, as a gradual way of being—a slow, consistent approach that embraces hiring practices, vision and values work, and teaching and encouraging the skills that allow leaders to enter into a deeper trusted partnership with their people.
“A mindset of partnership and safe conversations are the cornerstone of any successful program—but you need to have the vision and values in place first,” says Freytag. “You also need alignment at the top.”
In developing a holistic approach, Freytag points to research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies that looks at the connection between leader behaviors, impact on the work environment, and the way employees make decisions about whether or not they will support the mission of the company.
“People always have a choice —we call it discretionary effort,” says Freytag. “Compliance may work in the short term, but if you truly want the type of commitment and effort that sustains high performance, you have to tap into something more. You have to meet people’s needs. You have to make it safe for people to tell you what they need. It’s about reciprocity. If you can identify and help others take action on what they hold most dear, they will do the same for you.”
Freytag believes a partnering approach—managers and direct reports working together to achieve goals—is best.
“A partnering approach requires higher skill levels in conversation, listening, receiving and delivering feedback, and coaching—but it’s the only way I know to consistently deliver sustainable results and achieve high levels of performance with the workforce,” says Freytag.
Turning into people’s needs
Freytag says servant leadership is a partnership that makes it safe for people to express their needs on the job. It’s about leaders being approachable and turning toward their direct reports in a spirit of partnership to discuss those needs and provide support.
“As a leader, you must realize you don’t have to know it all. You must listen to learn—and make every person you talk to feel heard. When you do that, you set up a sense of approachability. People start bringing their concerns to you because they see you are not only well-intentioned but also available to listen. Your focus must be more on them and less on yourself. This is an essential of coaching. Servant leaders understand that they are always leading by example. Servant leaders also choose and behave so that they reflect the very behaviors they wish to see in the workforce.”
“When having discussions with some leaders in my past, I’ve had some give me their full attention and acknowledge my position only to let my suggestions fall on deaf ears and go nowhere. As a result, I didn’t really feel heard. The leaders I have had the highest affinity and respect for are those who were willing to have a discussion and to do more than just acknowledge my point of view. They got their arrogance and pride out of the way so they could hear my comments. They didn’t have to agree but they certainly made me feel heard.”
“As a servant leader, you have to raise your hand and show others it’s okay to raise their hand if they don’t know the answer. Leadership is about leading by example. You’re always doing that—it’s your choice whether the example is a good one or a bad one.”
Once you give yourself a heart check and are working on being more open, approachable, and available, Freytag says you’re ready to return to the basics of performance management—goal setting, coaching, and review—but with a different mindset.
“So what does it mean to serve—and what do you do differently? We use an operational leadership model called SLII®. SLII® teaches leaders first that people have needs and how to diagnose the different levels of needs people go through on various tasks and goals, and then how to help their people with those needs at their level.
“When aspiring servant leaders take a situational approach, they learn how to help their people grow and develop by meeting their needs for competence and autonomy. It’s a great model that lets leaders know where they are in a conversation. Using this approach puts the leaders focus on the needs of their people first and foremost.”
Freytag asks himself a simple question at the end of every performance related conversation to make sure he stays focused on meeting the needs of others.
“I ask myself: is this person more or less dependent on me on this topic as a result of this conversation? If they are more dependent on me, I’ve missed an opportunity. If they are less dependent on me, I’ve helped them grow and develop competence—which meets a basic psychological need. Now they feel more viable and are able to thrive. That’s a practical, real time, conversation-based perspective. It’s how you stay valuable to others.”
For leadership, learning, and talent development professionals considering a servant leadership initiative in their organizations, Freytag offers some caution on going too big at first.
“Don’t start with the training initiative right away. Start a little smaller—begin with vision and values. Where are you going? What’s important and why? Where are the gaps? I always guard against going too large or too fast with the aspiration of a large-scale training intervention, especially at the beginning of the conversation.”
Freytag also encourages senior leaders to walk the talk.
“It can be as simple as catching others doing things right. Develop recognition programs that recognize when others exhibit behaviors that serve the needs of others. Demonstrate that you value both relationships and results. Slowly you will plant the seeds and prepare the soil for a larger initiative. Once that gets rolled out through the ranks, you can focus on feedback, listening, and accountability.
“Now, piece by piece, you are building a servant leadership culture—and creating a work environment where people can grow and thrive.”
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