Founder and CEO of EngageSmart, the leading provider of vertically focused software solutions for essential tasks and services.
I’ve always believed that the people engaging with customers on a daily basis are the most important part of an organization. That’s why the servant-led leadership model clicked in my mind from the moment I encountered it.
The servant-led leadership model is an inversion of the traditional hierarchical pyramid. Executives sit atop the traditional organizational model, while customer service representatives, salespeople, and IT and operational support staff make up the base of the pyramid (in the middle are middle managers, marketing teams and so on). Under the servant-led model, however, the employees who interact daily with customers, partners and the community as a whole are at the top of the organizational structure; executives are at the bottom.
In conventional organizational models, executives are necessarily far removed from the organization’s ultimate sources of revenue — customers. Using a servant-led model, it becomes the senior leadership’s priority to understand the issues causing friction for customers and the employees who serve them directly and to remove any obstacles in the way.
This model works at startups and large organizations alike, and it contributes to positive growth and scale. Research has shown that company performance, measured by return on assets, is higher in companies run with servant leadership.
Below are some actionable tips for leaders looking to adopt servant-led leadership in their own organizations.
Break The Ice Early And With Everyone
A servant leader must be able to communicate with everyone in their company. This begins with getting to know your teammates on a personal level. Of course, as your organization grows, it becomes more of a challenge to maintain personal relationships with everyone on your expanding team, but it’s still possible if you make a concerted effort to do so.
It’s helpful to break the ice early. I’ve made it a point to attend every employee orientation meeting at EngageSmart, held monthly as part of our onboarding process. I sit down with each new employee and ask about their lives and interests and what makes them tick. It’s only by getting to know your employees that you can gain insight into who they are as people, not just as workers.
Establishing a rapport with employees early on, regardless of title, helps each person see they have access to the organization’s leadership and that open communication is encouraged. Showing that you care about their lives outside of work builds the trust necessary for direct connection. The more comfortable an employee feels sharing feedback and ideas with leadership, the faster that leadership will be able to identify and remove barriers to success.
The success of this model isn’t just anecdotal; research has found that servant leaders earn trust and build long-term relationships with their team members by showing genuine concern for each employee at every level of the organization.
Reinforcement Is Necessary
As an executive, you need to live the values of a servant leader. The inverted pyramid of servant-led leadership is only as real as the actions that make it so. Constant reinforcement is necessary.
I encourage executives to initiate and participate in conversations about smaller customers or partners. Even if that’s not where the business’s profit lies, it’s important to show employees that each interaction is an opportunity to foster a great experience, which leads to overall success. Ask questions about barriers in these situations and take the time and mental energy to help your team problem solve. This is how you model the values of a servant-led organization.
It’s A Team Effort
If you’re considering adopting servant-led leadership, talk to your leadership team. Everyone needs to agree that this is how your organization should be structured because everyone will have to embody this model and its values.
As the foundation of the leadership pyramid, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the C-suite to ensure that not only are they living the company’s values but that this mindset bubbles up through the organization. Other members of leadership — including those at the director and manager level — must do the same.
This requires regular check-ins with leaders at every level. You can’t be the only one committed to serving each and every employee — it’s the responsibility of all company and team leadership to listen to front-line employees and customers, understand what is causing setbacks, brainstorm solutions, and implement them together.
Celebrate Even The Smallest Achievements
Celebrating all wins, even those that seem small or insignificant, is a great way to stay connected to the employees laying the daily groundwork for your company. This becomes especially important as a company grows. As an executive, you may have more employees than you can connect with individually on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis, but it’s still important to have some touch point with employees at every level.
Encourage managers across your organization to let you know when an employee solves a customer service issue or takes initiative and pushes a project forward. Send an email to congratulate those employees, and use these opportunities as points of connection with the employees at the top of your inverted pyramid.
This will help make the organizational structure more than just a graphic you show employees at orientation or discuss during all-hands meetings (which you should do, too). Sincerely celebrating even a small achievement for individual employees demonstrates a commitment to serving employees’ needs. Celebrating their wins right alongside them strengthens the rapport you started to establish during their orientation and builds both trust and motivation throughout the team.
At its core, servant-led leadership is about creating and fostering the best possible environment to empower employees to do their finest work. If you live as a servant-led leader and ensure all leadership at your company embodies the same values, your employees will understand that they aren’t just working for decision-makers — they are decision-makers. And with your support, they’ll begin to make smart decisions on their own that build better relationships with your customers, which is essential to any organization’s success. Give kindness, respect, time and energy to employees at every level, and I promise you’ll receive tenfold what you offer.