Servant Leadership

What is Servant-Leadership?

Richard Greenleaf is credited with the popular definition for servant-leader, when he wrote in 1970:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

The roots of servant-leadership extend back much further.  Confucius said, “A benevolent man helps others to establish what he himself wishes to establish and also helps others achieving what he wishes to achieve. If one is capable of treating others as one would be treated oneself, this is the best way to be benevolent.” Some scholars are applying the words of Confucius about humility to leadership practices.  The humble leader is one who can listen and learn from the people around her, and benefit from their insight.

Why is Servant-Leadership Important?

When we practice servant-leadership, leaders benefit from the insights their teams provide, while the teams are able to trust and collaborate with each other for the best possible outcomes.  Leadership expert Simon Sinek explains in his 2014 TED talk that when leaders make their teams feel secure, those teams can be more productive.  The teammates can trust each other and work together more effectively if they aren’t spending energy on protecting themselves from real or imagined reprisals.  When we feel secure in our place on our teams, we can do our best work together.  As servant-leaders, we can easily set aside our personal concerns for our teammates, because we know they would do the same for us.

How Can We Be Servant-Leaders?

Anyone at any level of the organization can be a servant-leader.  Being in a position of authority isn’t required.  Like any new behavior, it will take practice for us to make servant-leadership a habit.  On a personal level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by helping others with tricky challenges.  We can mentor others through formal or informal mentorship programs.  We can take on a mundane task that needs to be done so someone else can stay focused on their work, whether it’s taking notes in a meeting or cleaning up the spilled coffee in the break room.  On a project level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by assisting teammates to improve their craft. We can promote their great ideas to the rest of the team (and give them credit).  We can remind each other of the client needs that drive our work.  On an organizational level, consulting companies can be the servant-leader for their clients. We can listen to the client’s needs in the sales pursuit process.  We can structure projects to grow their capabilities and mature their systems.  We can build solutions to move them forward to reach their business goals.

Being more like a man at work doesn’t work for women

Many books, think pieces and hot takes have been produced to tell women what they’re doing wrong when it comes to getting ahead in their careers, especially those of us in STEM careers. More often than not, the advice given (often by men) is to act more like men. Women in corporate (US) America understand this to be hollow guidance. The path to navigate the minefield of working while a woman means nodding and smiling while being given worthless advice, and learning the hard way what works.

The best study I’ve seen on this comes from Catalyst.org, called The Myth of the Ideal Worker, published in 2011.

The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?, tackles persistent myths about the gender gap. Career advancement strategies used by women and men were compared to determine if using the same strategies ultimately leads to the same career outcomes. Findings revealed that:

  • Men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies.
  • When women did all the things they have been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.

The summary download available at the Catalyst site explains four types of approaches workers use in advancing their careers. They measured women and men’s advancement within the same approach, and across all approaches.  The results?

  • Doing “All the Right Things” Helped Men—But Not Women—Advance Further and Faster
  • Additionally, Men Advanced Further Than Women Across All Other Strategy Profiles
  • Men’s Compensation Also Grew Faster Than Women’s, Regardless of Strategies Used

This also reminds me of other studies that show the men are hired and promoted for their potential, while women advance on their track record. Men also tend to overestimate their own capabilities, and believe they should be paid more for those imagined abilities than they are, while women are more likely to only pursue opportunities where they are fully (or over-)qualified.

If we look to the source of these tendencies, it points to how girls and boys are socialized. Girls are socialized to strive for perfection, while boys are encouraged to take risks and be unafraid of failure.  This plays out in schooling environments, where girls are less likely to answer questions in class unless they’re 100% sure they’re correct, and boys will just shout down interrupt with wrong answers or their own opinions. This behavior persists through to the college level.

This is teaching girls and women that we’re not likely to be heard, we’ll be judged harshly for any misstep or risk that doesn’t yield perfectly positive results, and that mediocre men will likely be advanced over hardworking women. Women tend to have a pessimistic outlook on their advancement and compensation, according to one study, but I personally think this is women accurately assessing their chances in the workplace.  Women’s lowered expectations means we have higher job satisfaction because we dare not dream of better outcomes, given the realities we face.

So what can we do to change these outcomes, since continuing to try the same tactics and hope for better results is insanity?

  • Teach girls bravery, not perfection
  • Making our achievements known, and seeking feedback and credit
  • Proactively networking with influential people
  • Pursuing high-profile projects where our achievements can shine

If you have other ideas for effective alternate strategies women in STEM jobs can use to improve their career advancement goals, please share!

The Importance of Sharing

Once upon a time in IT, which wasn’t all that long ago, possessing deep knowledge on a topic meant we could be considered experts. Our knowledge was a source of pride and job security; we were always in demand for our rarefied expertise. We’ve since learned the demand for our expertise swiftly outstrips the capacity of a handful of gurus, and we have to share information and collaborate as teams to scale to the increasing needs of our clients.

We can all relate to needing necessary information, and not knowing exactly where to find it or who to ask. While we’re hunting answers to our questions, we’re losing productive time and focus, which only frustrates us further. If the answer only resides in the head of a colleague, but you don’t know to ask that person, you can’t benefit from their expertise.

Furthermore, the next person with that same question can’t benefit from your quest for knowledge without embarking on their own scavenger hunt.

A study by McKinsey Group Institute discovered interaction workers – high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals (like us) – were spending 28% of their average workweek on emails, and another 19% searching for and gathering information. MGI further determined the productivity of workers could be improved 20-25% by improving collaboration and communication within and across enterprises.

What would that mean to our day-to-day life and work? Having fast, scalable means of communication and a searchable record of our collective knowledge as a company could mean:

  • Faster, more streamlined communication with each other
  • Smoother paths to collaboration
  • Lowering barriers between roles, titles and capabilities within the company and with our customers

Technology alone can’t solve every problem, as we know from our client projects. It’s the same with sharing our knowledge with each other: combining technology with behavioral and cultural shifts will bring more benefits than using technology alone. If we can create a Sharing Culture, we’ll have the collective genius of all of us across the company to help each other on our projects.

Here’s some ideas on how to foster a Sharing Culture:

  • On a personal level, we can overcome the notion that keeping information close to the vest is what gives your experience value, and consider instead sharing what you know with your colleagues to increase the impact of your expertise.
  • On a team level, we can trust each other enough to raise our hands when we need help, and ask for what we need. In response, we can share our knowledge with those seeking help. Recording our knowledge in shared documentation or recorded demos can help increase the reach of our collective knowledge.
  • On a company-wide level, we can participate in mentorship activities (formal or informal), or keep an eye on internal message boards or chat channels to find questions for which you may have an answer, no matter what role you play or title you hold in the organization.