For many, “servant leadership” seems like another amusing oxymoron, a figure of speech that joins contradictory terms like “jumbo shrimp,” “serious fun,” and “awfully good.” However, like most oxymorons, the juxtaposition of opposites can provide a clearer image or express a deeper meaning. Far from the idea of traditional leadership, in which an all-powerful CEO rules supreme from atop their high-rise corner office, servant leadership empowers people to build the company up. As such, it has grown in popularly since it was first coined in the 1970s, and it is now considered a leadership model ideally suited to sales forces. Here are some of the main principles of servant leadership and how to incorporate them into your sales organization:
Married couples and successful salespeople know the difference between hearing and listening. It is also a key distinction between the old-style, top-down leadership model and a servant leader. Servant leaders do not only hear what they want to hear. Instead, they genuinely want to know what people think. As such, they extend their undivided attention to everyone, from their top performer to the newest newbie. Listening means looking them in the eye and gauging unconscious indicators, such as tone of voice or body language. Leaders who don’t listen can’t know the true state of their company any more than sellers can know their client’s needs or couples the state of their marriage—until it’s too late.
Just as successful sellers know to express patience, understanding, and empathy for a client’s situation, servant leaders extend this to their employees. More than merely allowing time off or signing a sympathy card, servant leaders stop by an employee’s office or cubicle to inquire how someone is doing and offer the company’s support. Also, never underestimate the value of personal attention, such as a C-level VIP sharing a sales story or their own experience. This reinforces a team member’s standing. It shows they matter, and the higher-ups appreciate and value their contributions. This also builds commitment and retention, which are especially important during these remote/Covid times.
While they don’t need to be New-Age shamans with sage, servant leaders should still promote a positive environment. This starts by fostering an office where people feel comfortable. More than fancy décor, such as natural landscapes and empowering affirmations, servant leaders provide the resources, tools, and support team members need to achieve success. This includes periodic training and regular coaching to keep everyone on their game. In contrast to traditional leaders, who lock themselves in towers, servant leaders are on the ground, offering encouragement and motivation. Also, a healthy environment prevents negativity and ensures team members feel appreciated.
The best salespeople are aware of their client’s business and industry. They must be. Nobody wants a seller who is uninformed or aloof. The same is true of servant leaders. While they don’t need to know the intricacies of their sales team’s every deal, they should demonstrate an awareness of who they’re selling to and where they are in the process. True, this can be difficult in larger organizations. However, servant leaders go out of their way to be present. At the same time, they should be keenly aware of themselves and the image they present to everyone in the company, serving as models of fairness, good faith, and integrity.
Whether presidents, generals, CEOs, or teachers, all leaders should know the difference between having and using authority. It’s easy to bark orders and command people to do what you say. They may jump to attention, but that’s only for the short run. Servant leaders know the power of persuasion to achieve long-term belief or behavior change. Of course, this requires managerial skill, the ability to illustrate your reasoning and explain a course of action. In sales, this means getting the team to buy in to your processes because they see for themselves the reliable and repeatable results they achieve. Over time, this is more advantageous and profitable than doing what a leader says because the leader said it.
The best leaders have a vision. They then make it their mission to bring this vision to life. It’s been the blueprint for some of the greatest innovators, such as Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. However, servant leaders know the team’s belief is more than just the means to an end; it is essential to the goal. Of course, this vision must be greater than merely making money. For servant leaders in sales, it’s a big, audacious, dream that drives every process, action, and goal toward helping people and improving their lives. Bigger than slogans rolled out at kickoffs, the organization’s shared mission must be the overriding daily motivator of each team member, from the top down.
If vision is the long-term dream or goal of an organization, foresight is putting the pieces in place to make it happen. For servant leaders in sales, this is more than just budgeting for resources and technology. It’s anticipating how these forecasts will affect your most valuable resource, your sales team. In addition to hiring the right people to meet your future needs, servant leaders should consider which team members are ready for additional responsibilities, which could excel in new roles, and which might be better suited to other pursuits. Further, foresight should include competitive compensation plans to reflect the changing market and keep sellers enthusiastic and motivated.
One of the main differences between traditional leaders and servant leaders is accountability. Just as CEOs of publicly traded companies are accountable to their shareholders, servant leaders are accountable to their employees. This starts with being forthright and transparent about goals and expectations. In addition, it is being the first to say, “Our quotas may have been a little optimistic for the current economy,” or “I take full responsibility for our outdated technology.” From an employee’s view, this sets a tone. It acknowledges mistakes, and it demonstrates ownership. Servant leaders also know team members will more readily accept responsibility when they are enabled to succeed.
Servant leaders know commitment is contagious. If leaders want team members to invest in their organization, they need to model the same or greater dedication each day. While jetting off or dipping out may seem like a perk of leadership, too much of this takes a toll. Sure, it’s good to be the boss, but a disengaged attitude trickles down and tests the devotion of employees who are expected to give their all each day. For a sales team, servant leaders embody responsibility, duty, and fidelity by their presence. Like sellers checking on clients, they know a quick stroll through the office, inquiring about everyone’s weekend, goes a long way to maintain engagement and commitment from their team.
The old leadership model expected gratitude from employees. It was by the grace of the leader that they were employed. However, today’s workforce strives for more. Let’s face it, if salespeople are going to fully invest in selling and their organization, they should feel part of something bigger. Servant leaders help build a community of people who share common goals and enjoy each other’s company. To this end, leaders should not be absentee landlords, isolated from the day-to-day activities of the office. Instead, servant leaders walk among the group and take a prominent seat at happy hour. Of course, they may or may not take the mic at karaoke, but they are there, cheering the team.
While most would characterize “servant leader” as a witty play on words, sales leaders should see the larger implications. In contrast to the old leadership model, with an individual atop the organization, servant leaders place the emphasis on their team. Rather than merely asking, “What have you done for me?”—while checking performance metrics and KPIs—servant leaders ask, “How can I help you?” In this way, we see the point of the paradox. When leaders enable and empower each salesperson, the team is stronger than the individual. If the desired outcome is organizational success, servant leaders use the collective strength of the team to raise the organization to a greater height than any one leader can possibly lift on their own.