Flip the Org Chart on Its Head with Servant Leadership (Episode 35)

July 12, 2018

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello from SmartLinx! In today's podcast, we'll talk about the concept of servant leadership. Our guest today is Art Barter, founder of the Servant Leadership Institute. So what exactly is servant leadership? It's a set of behaviors and practices that turns a traditional power leadership model upside down. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader actually exists to serve the people. As a result, the practice is centered on a desire to serve and emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. Its primary goal is to enhance individual growth, teamwork, and overall employee involvement and satisfaction. Welcome, Art.

Art Barter: Thank you, Darcy, great to be with you today. Thanks for having me.

DG: You're welcome. So my first question to you is, is this concept of servant leadership new, or has it been around for a while? Could you tell us a little bit about its origins?

AB: Sure. You know, it's multiple origins in the commercial world, in the business world. Robert Greenleaf is the one that's known for bringing it into the business world back in the '70s and '80s. And he introduced the idea of caring about other people and helping people grow, and are they better off after they come in contact with you? And he's the one that first started writing about what it would be like in companies. And his experience was AT&T. He has some great writings. If you haven't read anything from Robert Greenleaf I would point you to him to get a good understanding of the transition he went through and the ideas that he had back in that time frame. And so it's been around for a long time. A lot of the concepts could be tracked back to historical time frames well before Robert Greenleaf, but in the business world, things started with Robert Greenleaf. Other leadership gurus have focused on servant leadership. John Maxwell, obviously, Ken Blanchard, Stephen R. Covey and his father all taught about how to care for people, how to build trust, how to build relationships. And so it's being taught in different forms and different names. What's a little bit different about us is we call it servant leadership in our organization, and we don't shy away from that name. And the reason we do that is we believe the word "servant" requires action, it requires the leader to do something rather than just be something. We all can be a good leader, we can say we're a leader, but it really is about what we do, not what we say. And so we like the word "servant" because it implies that we have to do something for someone else. And our motives are pure, we have to do it for the right reasons. So it's been around for a long time.

DG: That makes sense. So tell me a little bit about your story. First of all, what is your role at Datron, and how do you practice what you preach? How do you incorporate servant leadership there?

AB: Sure, I'm the president and CEO of Datron World Communications. That company is owned by a holding company called Datron Holdings Inc., and I own 100 percent of that stock, so I'm CEO, president, and owner of the company. I bought the company back in 2004 after we had spent a year defending ourselves in the government world. We were accused of bribing foreign officials in the government world under the Foreign Practices Act. And that came out in an acquisition that was going through for the parent company that owned us at the time. And we went through an investigation, we were accused first and then we were found innocent, there was nothing that we were doing wrong. And at the end of that year of investigation, we had an opportunity to buy the company. And our experiences in the power world, I've been in the corporate finance and operations and manufacturing most of my career, and I spent time with public companies where it's all about how much earnings you can report in your quarterly report. And during that time frame, I focused on building my career and climbing that ladder, and never found satisfaction in that arena.

And it wasn't until Ken Blanchard challenged me in 2003. I'd read all his books but I had a chance to meet with him personally in April 2003. And that's when he challenged me to become a servant leader. And challenged me through my faith, which no one had ever done that before, and I went "Well, OK, if I really believe what I believe, I really need to help people."

And he started my journey. And the investigation I went through was kind of like the last nail in the coffin of my corporate power experience, and I said, "You know what, I've had enough of this stuff. I'm tired of being used by companies, I'm tired of sacrificing my family for my company, I'm tired of traveling all over the place and dropping family events to take care of business, I'm just tired of being used."

And we decided when we bought Datron, my wife Lori and I, that we were going to lead our company in a different way. And we said we're going to become a servant-led organization where we focus on people first and profits later. We're not going to focus on profits. We didn't care how big we were going to be, we didn't care about revenue growth, we didn't care about profit growth. We set out a purpose and a company and a mission that's very simple. We want to be a profitable, self-sustaining, communications company that positively impacts the lives of others today and in the future. And so we had to be a company that made money. We had to be a company that was self-sustaining. We didn't believe in borrowing. We don't have debt, and we love it that way. So we've grown everything organically over the years. And we just want to positively impact the lives of other people, not just for the sale we do today, but we want the experience after the sale to have a positive impact. So it's not just about selling equipment for us, it's also about developing that relationship with the customer so we can serve their needs first, sell equipment to help them meet their needs, and then support them in their mission after they've got the equipment and put it to use.

DG: I've got to say that sounds exactly like what we do at SmartLinx but I've never looked at it as servant leadership.

AB: Most people have bits of pieces of servant leadership, they don't call it that. And there's nothing wrong with that, I want to be real clear, there's nothing wrong with that. For us, we said, you know what, we want it to be servant leadership. That's going to be our focus and that's what we're going to train for and run our company. Because we want our people to understand, we want to serve our customers, that's what's important to us. And so let's serve them and be servants to what they want to accomplish. Now, how we define that inside, we had to take that into a definition so our people could understand what that meant. And what we came up with internally at Datron was, our goal as servant leaders is to inspire and equip those we influence.

Now everybody says, "Wait a minute, how about I just inspire and equip those that report to me?" And we said, "No, you influence people who watch you." And there's going to be people outside of your organization that watch you. We believe everyone is a leader because everyone has influence over other people. Everybody is a leader. And leadership is all about influence. So our goal here is to inspire people to a great mission and purpose, operated through great values, and then we want to equip them to go after that mission and purpose so they can accomplish it and be successful, not only in the business world that we're in but also in their personal lives.

DG: That was one question I was going to ask you. How does it trickle over into your personal life?

AB: I can share a story with you. When we first got started, I think about our second year in, I told the team, I said, "You guys need to define what servant leadership is to you. So I want you to come up with a list of ten characteristics you think a servant leader should be." And they did that. And why I did that is I wanted them to have ownership of that definition. It wasn't the ultimate definition we ended up with but it got us started with ownership that came from them, they defined what that was. And then we said we're going to do 360 evaluations within the leadership team on those ten characteristics. Well one of them was listening. And I said, "OK, you guys are going to give me feedback on where you rank me in these ten characteristics."

And so I got all my feedback from leaders, we had about 35 leaders at the time. And I opened them up on a Friday night about 6 and I was still in the office, and I'm going through this and I'm going, "Hey the survey is wrong. We asked the questions wrong. These results aren't right. They're telling me I'm not a good listener and I know I'm a good listener. These are not right results. It's wrong. We're going to reword the question." I went home to my wife, Lori, and she says, "What's wrong? You're kind of down." I said, "You know, we wasted all this money doing the survey because the questions weren't asked right." She said, "What did you find out?" And I said, "I found out I'm not a good listener". And her response was not "Hey, honey, that's OK." She says, "Tell me something I don't already know." So I'm going home looking for support, I get confirmation that what I was told in the survey was actually true. Now I'm going, "I don't listen very well in my personal life; I don't listen very well in my business life."

DG: You weren't listening to the survey.

AB: I wasn't listening. You know I had to go do some research on listening. And in my research I found out that listening is a form of love, and if you really care about people you will listen to them. And not just listen to what they say but you're going to listen to understand what they're saying. And then hopefully you can get to the point where you have empathy for them and you actually feel what they're feeling, not just hear what they're saying. So we like to say "listen to understand" to our leaders. It's just not about listening. So my personal life was impacted because my wife says, "Yeah, I agree with them."

And so, did my personal life change when I became a better listener? Absolutely, because I started listening more to my kids, my teenagers, my wife, my friends. My personal life changed because of that. Now, I wasn't going after personal change in my life when we started servant leadership. I just know I wanted to be a different type of leader. And we saw that transformation take place in our leaders' personal lives as well as in their business lives. And when we hear parents talk about their relationship with their teenagers: "It is greater today because of servant leadership than it was before you taught me about servant leadership, Art." I go: "Isn't that what this is all about?"

Have a positive impact on people's lives, not just their work life. Work and life are integrated today. There is no switch that you can turn on and off when you walk in the front door of work. Our lives are integrated and so, you know, that's the overlay we've seen. And when you help people grow, you support them with education support. We've had a couple of deaths with some people on the floor and their families. Had a worker earlier this year lost a teenaged daughter. And they didn't have the funds, and Lori and I said, "What do you need?" And we gave them the cash and said to go take care of business with your family. Because that's what servant leaders do, they take care of their people.

And it isn't all about — you know, we work in California, do you think we have regulations out here that will just, it could choke a business, we love the weather out here so we stay. But you know, we find ways to help people that stay with them, everything we need to do here in California, and it's all because we care about people. That's the common thing we have in our company is we have a group of employees who care about people and want to help people. And that's the bond that brings us together. And that rolls over into your personal life. There is nothing you can do because if you really latch on to servant leadership it's going to impact mostly the people you love the most that are closest to you. Because they're going to see the change in your behavior first before anyone else does.

DG: Right. So what is the purpose of the Servant Leadership Institute, Art? Are its programs for groups, for individuals, for leaders only? Tell me a little bit about it.

AB: You know, when we started implementing servant leadership, we tried to find some material that would help us implement it in our company. Couldn't find any training programs, materials that would help us implement servant leadership. We had to find all kinds of material that would teach us about it. So we developed our own training program internally, spent about half a million dollars and came up with three modules. First module is about themselves, second module is about the team, and the third is how do we go make this work in our day-to-day lives. Each module is 15 hours, so we train 45 hours, put every employee in our company through that, took us about two and a half years to get through that entire process. And you know, we saw such great results. We started to grow, we set records in revenue and profits and cash flow. We did it with the same leaders, I didn't have to bring in new leaders like everybody told me I was going to have to, because we had great trusting relationships, and when you have great relationships within your leadership team, guess what? Things get done, and you grow and you don't need to bring on a whole lot of new people.

And people came to me and said, "Art, you need to share what you've done because you're making such a big impact." Now, internally we were seeing a great impact, but the one thing we started the year after we bought the company was we started the Datron Charitable Fund. Because we wanted our employees to live the mission and purpose of the company, to positively impact lives. So we set aside 10 percent of our operating account into a charitable fund that once it goes in there, the company can't get it back, we give it to Fidelity in a donor-advised fund. And we let our employees tell us where they want that money to go. So they submit grant requests in to our charitable fund committee, and they'll review it and make sure it's a nonprofit in good standing with U.S. laws and it's not a foreign entity, etcetera. And if that gets approved, we submit a request to Fidelity, they do their due diligence on the company, the nonprofit that's going to receive the funds, and if they approve it then they issue a check. And the group has generated so much money in profit that, so far, they've given away close to $16 million to nonprofits locally, and started to see what this company was doing. And they said, "Art, you've got to share what you're doing. You've got to tell people what you're doing." And so seven years into it we started the Servant Leadership Institute to share our knowledge and experience in implementing servant leadership in the corporate business world. And that's why we founded the Servant Leadership Institute.

DG: What are the benefits to an organization using this model? And have any studies been conducted to verify the benefits? And have you worked with any healthcare organizations, specifically any in long-term care? And if so, what results did you see?

AB: We're in multiple industries. Our largest client is in the medical industry. They actually licensed our material and they use it in their onboarding process and in their yearly training with their employees. Last we knew, they were training about 70,000 employees in 47 states, I think it is now. And they use it, they signed a five-year license agreement to license the material. And they are thrilled with the results. And so we've dealt with large companies, we deal with small companies. I deal with small leadership groups. You know, we've got it all over.

And what I find very interesting, Darcy, is wherever I go, whether I'm talking to senior leaders in organizations, middle management, supervisor level, or employees, everybody knows that what leadership has been all about, this thing of power, they're tired of it and they want something different and they're searching for something different. And what I like to share with them and try and help them understand is, instead of having the love of power, why don't we change that model, turn it upside down, and let people see the power of love. Why don't we treat everyone with dignity and respect, and we serve the life and not the ideology. Let's go serve people. Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, our job is to add value to every life that comes in front of us. Now we may not agree with them on every aspect of what they believe in but, you know what, I'm not the judge. I'm here to help people and add value to their lives. And can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone first thought of how can I treat this person with dignity and respect first, and then let's have a discussion about what we believe in, don't believe in, etcetera and we do it in a civil way. That's really what we're trying to get across to people is let's go show people the power of love, caring about people, helping people get better, investing our time in people's lives and watching them grow to their fullest potential. Isn't that what leaders are supposed to do, help people grow to their fullest potential? And in turn they help their organizations grow to their fullest potential. You can tell I'm passionate about this.

DG: I can.

Well, I can't argue with what you've said so far. I was laughing to myself when you were talking about you don't focus on profits. I'm thinking that CFOs who will listen to this might be cringing, and the employees who are listening to this are probably going, "Yes! I like this model!" So I think it can benefit everyone.

AB: I love to talk to senior executives who just go, "I don't believe in this." I said "OK, well let me show you." When we did our first strategic plan after we bought the company, people asked me, "How much do you want to grow, Art?" I said, "I'm not going to tell you how much we're going to grow. That's not for me to decide."

"Well no, you have to tell, are we going to grow 15 percent? 20 percent? Because then I have to roll that into my budgets." And I said, "Why don't we do this, guys? Why don't we go serve our customers, and why don't we let them decide with their checkbooks how fast we're going to grow. Because isn't that the real measure of our service, if they keep coming back to us. And so I'm not going to focus on growth, I'm not going to focus on profitability. Our goal is to be profitable, so we're going to be profitable, we're going to make wise decisions and be great stewards of the money that we've got, the organization that we've got. But I'm not going to be so focused on growth that we're going to sacrifice long term for short term. That just doesn't make sense."

And, you know, I had one of the greatest joys of my life last September in London when one of my customers from a foreign country who was a retired military officer came to me and said, "Art, I want you to have this coin." And it was a commemorative coin of a hundred-year vet in their country. He says, "We only made 100 of these coins and I want you guys at Datron to have one of these coins." He says, "You and your people have served our country from your heart more than any other company we've ever done business with." And I went, "That's what it's all about. We want our customers to see the heart of Datron, not just the people and the profits. We're here to help you achieve your mission and your own purpose in life and we're here to add value." And that was the best feedback I could receive from a customer, that they see that we're trying to serve them from our hearts and not from our pocketbooks.

DG: Sounds good. I've got to ask you, you've got a servant leadership conference coming up next year. Could you give us a sneak preview of it? And can participants receive professional development credit for attending?

AB: I'll answer the last question first, yes, every year we get programs approved to give credit. Mostly in the human resource world, we give credits. Depending on some of the topics that's financial related we might be able to give some CPA credits. But most of it is in the human resource engagement type world that we give credits and get approved to give credits. So we've got that down pretty good.

We have an annual conference. We like to come up with new ideas every year. In 2017 we brought in a conductor from the UK, an orchestra conductor, and he taught us about leadership from a conductor's standpoint. And one of the things that really stood out for me was he said, "You know we practice. I bring musicians together that are professionals, we all work at creating an experience for the audience." But when it comes time for performance, he says, "I cannot speak a word. I can't speak a word. So we practice all this stuff, and everybody does their thing the best they do" because they've got the best people in all the positions. And now it's time to perform and now it's time for everybody to do the best thing they do. And he conducts and generates an experience and shows how you bring all these different instruments together to create this beautiful experience of emotion and feeling through music. And you know, I play the keyboard, I brought my keyboard, we did some stuff on leadership and I said, "I challenged people, when you walk into a room, what kind of music do you generate when you walk in as a leader in a meeting? Do they hear music from ‘Jaws,' or maybe they hear the music from ‘Over the Rainbow.'"

DG: Or a funeral dirge, right?

AB: A funeral, exactly. What kind of music do you generate? And we had a lot of fun with that. This past year we focused on a travel plan, implementing servant leadership. I introduced a new book, The Art of Servant Leadership II, which tells the story of Datron and how we implemented servant leadership. And so our focus was all about being on the road and travelling. And so we brought in some slot car races, we had to explain to some people what slot cars were first. And it was all about racing and you know, when you're in a race, you practice like a pit stop, everybody practices and when it comes time to race you do your best to do what you've been taught to do. You're not talking about who's going to do what, you've already done that, now you're in the race, you're off going.

But for your organization and what I believe in is, we as leaders, we can listen to the John Maxwells or Ken Blanchards, the Coveys, whoever you want to talk to, you can talk to me. But as a leader you know your organization better, and it's your responsibility to pick and choose what you think your organization will react to. And when you pick that and pull it together and start implementing it, you have to find the right speed for your organization to change. And some will try and go fast around the track and they'll crash and burn and say it doesn't work. Some will go too slow and not get into it fast enough. Some will find the right pace of change for their organization and they'll be successful at it. And that was kind of our focus, was find the right speed for your organization to take all these things about leadership that you've learned, some from us, some from other people, how do you go implement that in your organization and be successful in the race that you're racing in.

DG: I like that. Do you have a theme for next year's conference?

AB: We're working on that. I have a creative bunch of people, and we've got one of our staff members getting married this Saturday, another one's on vacation, so in about two weeks we're going to have the whole staff together. And it's creative generation time for about 30 days where we come up with ideas on what we're going to do next year. Our general concept is we spend a day, day and a half, we bring in multiple speakers from multiple areas, we give them the theme, we work with them on their presentation so that there is a consistent theme in all the talks. And then we try and do a workshop at the end to help people take something back from the conference that you can implement so it doesn't just end up on a bookshelf somewhere and you forget about it. But you've got something to go work with.

DG: Do you have a date and a location set yet?

AB: It's going to be in Carlsbad, California, in San Diego but it will be in north San Diego County instead of downtown San Diego. And I think we're the third week in March next year.

DG: Well Art, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. And to all our listeners, thank you for tuning in. If you'd like to learn more about servant leadership, visit ServantLeadershipInstitute.com. And if you'd like to learn more about SmartLinx and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at SmartLinxSolutions.com.

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