Humility and conviction: The benefits of managing your business with 'servant leadership'

During COVID, I failed at integrating new hires into our agency. It was hard on the new hires and hard on the agency.

In an industry notorious for high turnover, our marketing agency, Simon/Myers, has historically been just the opposite. But that wasn't the case for about a year. Where did we go wrong during the pandemic, and what did we learn along the way?

Since we weren't connected in a physical space, we overcompensated by deploying numerous surveys, worked to get full consensus on key topics and ended up crowdsourcing our direction. The result? We slowed the decision process, and people grew frustrated as issues remained unresolved.

At the same time the agency grew rapidly as our clients turned to us to help them navigate the changes we were all experiencing. For the new hires, working in a fully remote environment didn't allow for relationships to form organically. They remained isolated, despite our best efforts and multiple virtual happy hours.

During this phase our culture suffered; even our core values were being debated. And as a result, many of our new hires decided Simon/Myers wasn't right for them.

At Simon/Myers, we value leading with humility. The business term for this management style is "servant leadership." You put the needs of your team first, while letting them set their goals as to how they will advance in the company.

The first step to getting back on course was to get faster with our decision-making. That meant being clear that we wanted input, but equally clear who was responsible for our overall direction. We decided it was better to make a decision faster, even if it turned out to be the wrong one, than make no decision at all. In short, we put the "leadership" back into "servant leadership."

Our second move was to lean into one-on-one coaching. It's a valuable tool for anyone but critical for new hires. Our hope was that coaching would align a team member's professional goals with the needs of the company. And it would help us stay connected. Spoiler alert: it worked.

So what does effective coaching look like?

To start, I have a few rules for coaching.

1. The team member that is being coached owns the agenda.

2. The coach should listen more than talk.

3. Play to the team member's strengths.

They are meaningful conversations about a person's career path. We aren't asking what they need to do in order to secure their next promotion, we are looking out 3-5 years and talking about plans to reach those goals. The coaching I do has a particular focus on leadership skills.

What's so powerful about one-on-one coaching? Leaders invest in their team and get to know them as the interesting individuals they are. And since the team member owns the agenda, they become vested in the process. Leaning into this aspect of servant leadership resulted in a team that is better aligned and better connected.

We are over a year past this speed bump. Our retention rates are back to baseline, and our teams are more aligned than ever. More importantly, we have an incredibly strong and rising leadership team.

What did we learn? Servant leadership does not mean a business is run as a democracy - you still need to make decisions and move fast. Nor should leading with humility be confused with deviation from the values we hold to be true - it's possible to be both humble and confident. In fact, business demands it.

Business is always a push and pull of internal and external forces, seemingly trying to break things apart. As such, there will be another challenge to face. But we now have another hard lesson under our belt, one more data set to draw from and a more seasoned team to propel us forward.

• Lou Simon is the Principal/Founder of Simon/Myers, a marketing agency with offices in Wheaton and Chicago.

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