Being a servant leader is a conscious choice that stems from a natural desire to serve. The best test of a servant leader’s effectiveness is how much the people they are leading grow and develop thanks to their presence. It’s easy to focus conversations about servant leadership on the actions of individuals, but this principle can be applied on a macro level with just as many benefits. Here are examples of businesses that continue to achieve success through applied servant leadership on an organizational level.
Chick-fil-A is the best-selling fast-food chicken restaurant in America, despite having only around 2,200 stores and not being present in 3 states. While the chicken might just be that good, there’s also the brand’s strong servant leadership culture to consider as a market driver. They are legendary for being one of the only businesses not open on Sundays, giving all employees at least one day off. This decision, made in 1946 by founder Truett Cathy, was informed by Cathy’s own experience working in 24-hour restaurants. It is also one of the reasons the company has never become publicly traded since it costs the chain billions of dollars a year. Cathy used profits from Chick-fil-A to start the WinShape Foundation, which develops programming ranging from college scholarships to supporting foster homes.
What to Learn: Staying true to values under short term pressure has long term payoff. No doubt Cathy faced plenty of pressure to open on Sunday during his company’s growth. But today, the brand has a strong emotional resonance with consumers and employees alike thanks to this choice.
The Container Store
The Container Store is an organization supply retailer continuing to achieve modest growth even with new competitors like Amazon in the market. In a letter to prospective investors, CEO Kip Tindell describes the company culture as “yummy,” going on to say “we have found that if you take better care of the employees than anybody else, they really will take better care of the customers than anybody else.” This employee-first experience leads to a customer-first experience for shoppers at the store. With a focus on helping employees develop intuition and ask solution-oriented questions, visiting a Container Store has been said by some shoppers to be more fun than Disneyland—and the employees love it too.
What to Learn: Don’t be afraid to state your values plainly. One of the Foundation Principles™ of The Container Store is that Communication IS Leadership. Even if you think the choice to adopt servant leadership practices across the organization might lead to some losses, the benefits will manifest on the upswing.
You don’t make the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list for 20 years in a row without great overall culture. Nordstrom is known as an employer that trusts the decisions of its employees, embodied in their one company rule: Use your best judgment in all situations. While they have other conduct codes and policies as required by law, their company approach has long been grounded in the desire to do best for others as you would yourself. Their inverted pyramid business model puts customers and store associates at the top, with promotion moving people “down” the pyramid into management/support positions.
What to Learn: Serve even when it doesn’t serve you. In 1975 Nordstrom acquired three shops in Alaska from the Northern Commercial Company. That retailer sold tires, which Nordstrom never has. However, when a customer brought in tires for return a short time after the acquisition, they gave him a refund, no questions asked.
In 2015, there were over 22,500 Starbucks worldwide. This company’s status as a household name is in large part thanks to servant leadership practices like offering non-traditional benefits and linking shareholder value to employee satisfaction. Previous Starbucks President Robert Behar spoke to the Robert E. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in a 2015 interview. “Culture is a funny thing. If you want to change it, it’s not about talking about it; it’s about living it,” he said. Behar led the growth of the brand from 28 regional stores to its status in 2003 when he retired. One of the first moves he made after assuming leadership was to create Open Forums, where the baristas could ask any questions they wanted, even how much he made. As the company grew, scaling these practices as part of sustaining its success.
What to Learn: Constantly question if you are living up to your values. Starbucks made headlines decades ago for giving health insurance to even part-time employees. More recently, they’ve added tuition assistance, day care reimbursement, commuter assistance, and more.
These approaches are just some of the ways organizations can foster a culture of servant leadership. What strategies are working for you?