Servant Leadership Lessons and Growth: More Observations from a CHRO

Today’s post comes to us from Alex Smith, a working mother of two who’s passionate about servant leadership and making a difference in the community. This article is the second in a two-part series on the positive impacts of servant leadership.

On Tuesday, in my first article here at The Workforce Institute, I talked about servant leadership and told the story of how one high-potential employee led our organization’s contact-tracing efforts in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she lacked prior knowledge about infectious diseases and contact tracing, she stepped up to lead the program and ended up succeeding in doing so, despite many unknowns.

I believe building a culture of servant leadership for our organization inspired her to lead, take effective action, and ultimately help our organization (and community) in a critical time. That leader still works with me today, three years later. In fact, several of the employees who helped with contact tracing and other initiatives during the pandemic are still with us. Given we saw our resignation rate increase by 42% across our organization from 2020 to 2021, retaining these employees has been a blessing. My challenge now is keeping them engaged.

The Positive Ripple Effects of Servant Leadership

Here is a question: Do you care about your employees? The hallmark of being a good leader is your employees believing you genuinely care about their wellbeing and development. For example, I recently had an employee experience the death of a close relative. I saw it as my job to ensure the employee was OK, give them flexible time to manage their affairs, and help them slowly transition back to the office. Because I gave that employee grace, they were willing to do the same when a similar situation happened with their own direct report.

This trickle-down effect helped foster empathy and support within our culture, while creating an environment where others were willing to step up, so we did not lose productivity. Importantly, we gained trust among the team. Jim Collins, author of the book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t,” calls this the “flywheel effect.” While a simple change, the flywheel effect has helped us gradually shift our culture toward servant leadership. Today, this team has seen its call-answer-time improve by 50% year over year, and I am receiving more positive feedback from employees.

Servant leadership is about understanding. Yes, before you can be understood, you must gain trust. Before you can do that, you must genuinely care about the people who work for you. Once you understand what is important to your team, you can explain what is important to you. On any given day, for example, I spend time explaining our division’s current state of affairs, listening to employees, and making real-time adjustments to our processes or policies to help everyone be more effective.

Good servant leadership also starts with a vision for the greater good. Similar to during the pandemic, my job as a leader is to set a vision of where I see us going — and, most importantly, how we can get there as a team. Helping our team see the big picture and how their work fits into inspires them to collaborate, innovate, and drive the team’s overall success. This aspect makes servant leadership powerful in creating alignment and performance improvement.

Servant Leadership Also Works Outside Work

This works at home, too. With my two daughters, before I give orders for cleaning their room or washing dishes, I start with a question: “How are you this morning?” I also tell them before the week starts, “Mommy will be travelling this week,” or “Mommy has a big presentation, so we must get up on time.”

Letting my daughters know that I genuinely care about them and providing context on what is ahead makes a difference in building trust and letting them know they are a part of the family, as well as my expectations for their contributions. While it is not perfect, my mornings have more likelihood of going smoother by me communicating with them in advance.

Fostering a culture of servant leadership is a game changer — especially at work, and even at home. It will bring about true collaboration, employee engagement, and results, which all organizations need to be successful. It can also help your morning drop-off!