Thursday, January 10, 2008

Leadership Legacies: Built to Serve

Inspiring The Spirit of People at Work

Over the past 40 years, I've had the good fortune to work with hundreds of organizations ranging from multi-billion dollar global corporations and mid-sized companies to new start-ups, non-profits, and governments. I've experienced organizational life as an employee, client, supplier, and service provider in companies with as few as one employee and as many as hundreds of thousands of people.

While most all of the organizations I've been involved with have espoused that people are their most important asset, a rare few have actually put "people-first" into practice. Those with stated missions and values focused on people and service more often have practiced "numbers-first" in their day-to-day operations.

Such is the personal backdrop for my reading of Dan J. Sanders new book "Built-to-Serve: How to Drive the Bottom Line with People-First Practices." The author is the CEO of United Supermarkets, a privately-held company with stores in 26 cities.

Sanders is an engaging storyteller who begins each chapter of his book with a short story that demonstrates the lessons of his content. The stories come from his work experience which included being a U-2 reconnaissance pilot while serving in the Air Force as well as from meaningful events in the author’s life.

Calling for a paradigm shift in business, Sanders provides a hands-on guide for creating "sustainable, culture-driven, people-centered organizations." His view of leadership in organizations involves "more a choice than a position" and focuses primarily on service to others. From my perspective, Sanders offers guidance that complements the servant leadership model which Robert Greenleaf and others have written about.

An organization's culture consists of its values and the common vision held by its people as well as their behavior with one another and the customers they serve.

A people-centered organization engages people in a higher purpose and does not compromise its values. It remains faithful to the vision and mission of the organization 100% of the time. Leaders place the "highest level of importance on human beings." At United Supermarkets, they have reframed the Golden Rule to say:

"Do unto others as you would have your children done unto.”

In Sanders view, this guiding principle “fulfills the human spirit and allows for connecting people on a deeper level."

To be sustainable, organizations must engage people in service and focus on their long-term purpose while balancing the short-term needs of their people. Sanders maintains that "organizations that make people and service the cornerstone of their corporate identity enjoy sustainability."

The heart of the book centers on ways leaders can empower people to make decisions based on the organization's vision, mission, and commitment to sustainability. Sanders says a "clearly communicated and understood vision statement empowers team members to make decisions that support the organization's higher purpose." In his view, the best vision statements incorporate the higher purpose of the organization—that which is most significant to sustain it over time.

A good mission statement is critical as well because it eliminates confusion and reminds everyone of the organization's expectations. It inspires people on their journey toward realizing the organization's vision. Sanders encourages everyone to commit the words of their mission statement to memory and bring them to life in daily decisions. At United Supermarkets, their mission statement consists of just six words: Ultimate Service. Superior Performance. Positive Impact.

I was surprised (and pleased) to read that Sanders believes "the single biggest threat to an organization's success is pride." In my experience, pride has been a destructive element in many of the corporations I've worked with over the years (and has gotten in the way personally in small businesses I’ve started).

The kind of pride the author speaks of is “a high or overbearing opinion of one's worth or importance." To minimize its destructive affects, he suggests a three-step process that keeps people focused on the future, not the past; on the pursuit of excellence; and on the right kind of role models. By fostering humility and asking the right questions, leaders can put destructive pride in its place and maximize positive pride -- "the feeling of elation and satisfaction derived from achievement."

Sanders concludes each chapter with a summary of key points aptly titled "From the Express Lane" (great for speed readers and PowerPoint enthusiasts!). In the final chapter, he provides a "Carryout for Leaders" – a 10-point list which includes such guidance as "Surrender your ego", "No job is unimportant", and "Do not compromise integrity."

In the Afterword, Ken Blanchard, co-author of Leading at a Higher Level and The One Minute Manager, encourages readers to learn from Dan Sanders leadership and take action in their organizations. He calls on leaders to focus on three simple questions to guide their organizations to long-term success:

1. What have we done for our customers?
2. What have we done for our people?
3. What have we done for our community?

By putting the lessons of Built to Serve into practice, business leaders can create a profound shift in the vitality and performance of their organizations. I highly recommend the book to people at all levels in any size organization -- for inspiration, for guidance in leading, and for instilling life-enhancing principles in workplaces throughout our community and the world.

NOTE: Dan Sanders, Steven Covey, and others have started The Center for Corporate Culture to help leaders put the principles of "Built to Serve" into practice.
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