Happy to be of Service


“Look, kid,” the big boss says from behind a solid oak desk, smoke billowing from his pungent cigar as his triple chin spills over the Windsor knot in his tie. “I know ya’ got some talent. Come work for me. I’ll give you a nice salary and good benefits. Maybe someday you’ll have your own office.”

The young man accepts the offer – with the tacit understanding that he’ll spend the next 20 years plowing forward with his head down, obeying orders without so much as a whimper. The employer-employee relationship was pretty simple in the old days – and undoubtedly still exists. But it’s a flawed and outdated managerial style. Working folks are looking for more than financial rewards and even job security – they desperately want to matter.

An astounding number of people find their jobs unfulfilling – roughly 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. Disengagement, of course, means billions of dollars in lost productivity. Many enlightened executives, however, are successfully turning the tide by practicing servant leadership – a relatively new philosophical approach that offers meaning and purpose for employees regardless of industry.

When Cheryl Bachelder took over as CEO of the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in 2007, the fried-chicken restaurant chain was in serious trouble. Franchise owners were unhappy with corporate, sales were down and the stock price was steadily heading south. Not surprisingly, morale everywhere was terrible.

Talk about jumping into the frying pan!

Though the odds against Bachelder appeared insurmountable, she and her management team researched leadership methodologies and found servant leadership the most desirable. Servant leaders engage, inspire and empower their people; traditional egocentric bosses insist that everyone play by their rules, leaving little room for independent thought, creativity or innovation.

“As a leader, the most ambitious thing you will ever attempt is removing yourself from the spotlight,” writes Bachelder in her terrific book, Dare to Serve, which details Popeyes’ remarkable comeback. The summary is available in getAbstract’s library.

Servant leaders such as Bachelder practice humility, are willing to be vulnerable, freely admit their mistakes and allow others to receive credit. Instead of blaming others or verbally lashing out to compensate for their insecurities or shortcomings, servant leaders accept responsibility and acknowledge reality. They treat everyone with dignity and respect – from the custodian to the division president.

At its core, servant leadership demands a commitment to building positive relationships with all of your constituencies. In Bachelder’s case, that included franchise owners, customers, employees, vendors and shareholders. Servant leaders act in the best interests of their organizations, keeping an open mind and encouraging input from others. Employees who feel cherished by their companies are energized, optimistic and industrious.

“If you ask the people what constrains their performance, it is usually not skills – it is the work environment established by the leader,” says Bachelder.

Matt Tenney, author of Serve to be Great, also available on getAbstract, cites several examples of servant leadership and its multiple benefits. He writes about the Zappos customer service rep that spent 10 hours on the phone with a customer even though they weren’t even discussing the company’s products. Word of the call got out and earned positive publicity for the online shoe retailer. Then there’s the story Herb Kelleher, the former Southwest Airlines CEO who set an example for his managers by helping baggage handlers on Thanksgiving Day.

Joel Manby, CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, lends financial support to employees facing challenging life circumstances. Charlie Kim, founder and CEO of Next Jump, an e-commerce company, once closed his New York City office so everyone could attend a secretary’s wedding. Kim also presents a $30,000 award to the employee voted “best servant leader” by his or her colleagues.

“Leading with a focus on serving others … help(s) an organization achieve sustainable success,” Tenney says.

Businesses known for their family-type values are more profitable, have far less employee turnover and can afford to be more selective in their hiring practices. In 2012, for instance, Next Jump hired only 35 people from among thousands of applicants.

“A great team culture is arguably the only sustainable competitive advantage that remains in the new economy,” Tenney says.

Popeyes’ turnaround and steady growth certainly stands as a ringing endorsement of servant leadership. Profits are up 40 percent, stockholders are pleased and the chain continues to expand with roughly 2,250 restaurants and 60,000 employees in the U.S. and worldwide.

Apparently, Cheryl Bachelder isn’t just blowing smoke.

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