Leading with humility (2)

Let us talk about how to lead your organisation with humility.

First, it is important that you ask your employees or followers how you can help them do their jobs better and then listen to their responses and suggestions. This approach may sound deceivingly simple, but rather than dictating how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better. It will help if you are trusting enough to know that the effects of this approach can be powerful.

In the case of the Gambian supply chain previously mentioned, once new businesses disrupted its traditional model, the management team reluctantly agreed that things needed to change. They realised that the company needed to compete on excellent customer service, but to do so, they needed the support of their employees who provided the service.

And they required ideas that could make the organisation more competitive. So, after serious deliberations with its consultants and some c-suite training, the management team tried a new format for its weekly performance meetings with the drivers.

What it comes down to is this: employees who do the actual work of your organisation often know better than you how to do a great job

What’s the new approach? Instead of nit-picking problems, each team leader has trained to model servant-minded behaviours to employees so that employees will better serve customers. As a result of this paradigm shift, they are now to ask their drivers, “How can I help you deliver excellent service to our customers?”

As expected, there was considerable scepticism at the beginning. The trust level for the Team Leaders was very low, and the drivers’ dislike for their leaders was high. But as the Team Leaders kept asking, “How can I help you deliver excellent customer service?” gradually, some drivers started to offer their ideas and suggestions. For example, a driver suggested a new product that is children-friendly and fun that parents could get delivered early and pop into their children’s lunches before school. Another driver thought of a quicker way to report stock shortages, so customers were not left without the supplies they ordered.

Small changes created a virtuous cycle. As the drivers got credit for their ideas and saw them put into place, they grew more willing to offer more ideas, which made the depot managers more impressed and more respectful, which increased the delivery people’s willingness to give ideas. And depot managers learned that some of the so-called “mistakes” that drivers were making were actually innovations they had created to streamline processes and still deliver everything on time. These innovations helped the company provide better customer service.

What it comes down to is this: employees who do the actual work of your organisation often know better than you how to do a great job. Respecting their ideas and encouraging them to try new approaches to improve work encourages employees to bring more of themselves to work.

As one area manager summarised: “We thought that we knew our delivery people inside out, but we’ve realised that there was a lot we were missing. Our weekly customer conversation meetings are now more interactive, and the conversations are more honest and adult in their approach. It’s hard to put into words the changes we are seeing.”

Second, create low-risk spaces for employees to think of new ideas. Sometimes the best way for leaders to serve employees and their organisation is to create a low-risk space for employees to experiment with their ideas. By doing so, leaders encourage employees to push on the boundaries of what they already know.

Read also: Leading with humility

For example, I have a coaching client who moved to Sierra Leone from Lagos, Nigeria, to serve as general manager of Retail Banking at GTBank. She learned that one of the cultural expectations of her new job was to visit the branches and put pressure on branch managers to be more efficient and effective in cutting costs. Branch staff would spend weeks anxiously preparing for the visit.

However, she changed the nature of these visits. Instead of emphasising her formal power, she started showing up at branches unannounced, starting her visit by serving breakfast to the branch employees.

Then, she would ask how she could help employees improve their units. Many employees were very surprised and initially did not know how to react. But her approach tamped down employees’ anxiety and encouraged ideation and innovative ideas—her consistency and willingness to help convinced employees who were sceptical at first.

The approach exposed many simple “pain points” that she could easily help solve. For example, training for the new bank systems or upgrading computer memory so the old computers could handle the latest software.

Another example is one of the branches inside a shopping mall. The employees asked her if they could open and close at the exact time as the mall’s operating hours (rather than the typical branch operating hours). The team wanted to experiment with working on the weekends. Within a few months, this branch’s weekend income generation surpassed its entire weekday income. This was not an idea that she had even imagined.

These experiments paid off in terms of company performance. Customer satisfaction increased by 54 per cent in less than two years of her humble leadership. Complaints from customers were reduced by 29 per cent during the same period. The bank’s employee attrition ratio among all foreign banks in Sierra Leone was reduced to the lowest among all foreign banks.

Third, be humble and accommodating. Leaders often do not see the true value of their charges, especially “lower-level” workers. But the outcomes can be outstanding when leaders are humble, show respect, and ask how they can serve employees as they improve the organisation. And perhaps even more important than better company results, servant leaders get to act like better human beings.