Servant Leadership in Action: A B2B Example

Recently, we posted a blog that showcased servant leadership in organizations: Servant Leadership in Action: Two Great Examples. In our previous blog, we featured two B2C companies that are well-known, Southwest Airlines and Chick-fil-A. However, because there are many stellar examples of servant leadership in the marketplace, we decided also to give you an example of a B2B company succeeding with servant leadership.

The Power of Complaints

Cultural transformation at Barry-Wehmiller (B-W), a $2 billion capital equipment and engineering consulting company based in St. Louis started by listening to and responding to employee frustrations. As reported by Ilan Mochari in Inc., a 27-year old employee “challenged (CEO Ron) Chapman on the merits of B-W’s “Guiding Principles of Leadership” document. The document emphasizes how trust is the basis of B-W’s work environment. So why, Campbell wondered, did he have to punch a time clock, get supervisors to approve time off for doctor’s visits, and wait for bell breaks to get coffee or use the bathroom? How did any of that constitute trust?

What made the situation more galling for Campbell was that he’d just returned from a three-month assignment in Puerto Rico, where he had immense autonomy. Coming back to the plant made him feel like “all my freedom slipped away,” he told Chapman.”

Guiding Principles

This story and leadership’s response lead to the adoption of these principles for addressing employee complaints:

  1. “Ask questions that lead to unrehearsed, emotional truths. Employees must trust that telling the truth to power will not jeopardize their position. But once that trust is in place, the easiest way to elicit the unvarnished truth is by asking “How does this make you feel?” And then openly and honestly listening to the answer.
  2. “Act quickly, when the truth strikes.” For this example, Chapman ordered time clocks and break-bell eliminated within 24 hours of hearing the employee’s frustration. When leaders hear the truth, they recognize it, and they do not hesitate to act.
  3. “Stay patient with skeptical employees.” B-W leadership employs “courageous patience” to bring skeptical employees into the fold and gain their trust. As Chapman said, “You’ve got to give them a chance to trust and believe in you. They’ve been burnt so many times.”
  4. “Use documents to codify your beliefs.” Communication, coaching, training – all reinforce the company’s Guiding Principles and commitment to servant leadership.
  5. “Stop favoring “star” talents and tap everyone’s“People often talk about getting rid of ‘B players’ and replacing them with ‘A players’,” writes Chapman. But at B-W, “we think it is far more important to have a safe bus and make sure that the person driving the bus–the leader–knows how to take the people to a better place.” Imagine how that makes all employees feel.
  6. “Err on the side of employee recognition.” B-W believes there can never be too much recognition for employee efforts. Without watering down the value of the reward, you can achieve widespread employee recognition.
  7. “Enshrine your culture through training.” Successful servant leadership cannot rest with one leader. Everyone in the organization should be brought into the servant leadership model through training, to ensure continual strengthening and reinforcement of the culture.

One important result of succeeding with servant leadership is that other companies want to learn from you, and servant leaders are eager to share. Starting in 2011, B-W has welcomed leaders from other organizations to share its employee-first culture with the world. Chick-fil-A has a long history of sharing its leadership programs with others, including young adults. Managers flock to Zappos to experience and learn about their servant leadership foundation for superior customer service. By sharing your culture with others, you strengthen and reinforce your culture with your own employees – and help preserve it for the future.

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