Can Companies be Servant Leaders?

Wikipedia states that  servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

When we refer to servant leadership in Scrum it is at the team level. A ScrumMaster is the servant leader for the Scrum team. They do all the steps the definition above refers to and more. This is all great for the Scrum team, but what about everyone else, the ScrumMasters included? Who is their servant leader? Can companies step in and supplement for this role?

How does a company share power with their employees? It does so by empowering them to know what needs to be done and by letting them do it how they think is right (within pre-established guardrails usually). A few examples are company sponsored groups, the power to design work spaces, and letting employees have flexible working hours and arrangements. A concrete example of this empowerment from a company I heard about was during a large project. The teams had to work mandatory Saturdays to deliver on time but they were allowed to do whatever they needed to get the job done. There was food catered in every Saturday, there were free beverages, and employees were allowed to bring their families and the kids played together. There were (and still are) development areas that have fun traditions including a big cardboard Justin Bieber cutout that gets placed in your cube if you break the build. They have Nerf guns and beanbags games and a ping pong table. All of this empowers them to get their job done but have fun doing it. This may not seem like employee empowerment but it made them feel appreciated and want to work harder to get the project done.

Putting the needs of others first isn’t necessarily what comes to mind when thinking of large organizations. But organizations have different ways of putting their employees needs first. Everyone has heard of Google’s free lunches for employees and 3M’s “innovation time” every week, but what about all the other organizations? One of the companies I’ve worked for does shuttle rides in from the parking lots in the winter. They also give out free fruit on Tuesdays and free coffee and tea everyday. And of course casual Fridays, which may seem like a given but I’ve worked places where there are never casual Fridays. Among other things there is a bank, coffee shop, convenience store, cafeterias, and Subway in the building. Some companies also have fitness centers and childcare centers, too. There are many more examples but companies do generally try to meet our needs, though they can’t ever meet all of them to the extent we’d like them to. Even something as simple as promoting exercise times by providing bicycles to use to take a break can go a long way.

All of the above things help people to develop and perform. Making people perform as highly as possible is a different story. What is the largest thing hindering performance? In my opinion it’s the infinite processes and bureaucracy and levels of management that make it impossible to get things done . There is not an easy fix, but there are some people take things into their own hands. In one instance I know of, Macs were needed for some graphic design. The procurement process would have taken at least a month but the computers were needed immediately. A senior director went to Best Buy and bought them on his corporate credit card instead of waiting for the procurement process. Certainly everyone doesn’t have the power and authority to do this without repercussions, but even from the bottom level grassroots efforts, things can be done.

Companies can try to be servant leaders for their employees. Though they don’t work exactly like traditional Scrum servant leaders, they can still help their employees to want to work to their potential. The biggest thing is to keep teams in mind, remove obstacles, and motivate employees. This can look different from various angles but in the end there is the same goal: successful projects and happy employees. With good leadership and empowered employees they can be achieved.

19. February 2013 by Natalie Warnert
4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Well done, Natalie! I enjoyed reading this, and also shared with my colleagues. Great blog. Good observation and advice about what makes a great place to work, and how to empower your employees with servant leadership for a successful project deliverables. You Rock!

  2. Thanks, Rama! I appreciate the feedback 🙂

  3. And I just got to go to a Minnesota Twins baseball game in the company box! What a great perk that makes me very happy to work where I work!

  4. Excellent post! I think we can/should all work toward being servant leaders. It will look different in every situation and we need to figure out what it means in our work environment.

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