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The 5 best ways to be a servant leader | B2B Marketing

As a leader it can be hard to know when to take control and when to take a step back. Alex Shootman, CEO of Workfront discusses how and why you should take on a more subservient role.

According to Pew Research, digital natives became the majority of the workforce in 2015.  This is a generation whose coming of age was empowering; it’s an energetic generation that is collegial and expansive.  At its most positive it’s selfless, rational, and competent. These are desirable qualities, and leaders who want them reflected within their organizations have some adapting to do.

The world of work is changing, and leadership styles need to change along with it. Simply modeling the leaders that came before you won’t work anymore. Dogmatic authoritarianism just doesn’t resonate with this cohort ­- if it has ever resonated with anyone who had another option.

In a job market that offers so much choice, it’s not the leader who dictates to their team what they must accept, it’s the team that anoints someone an effective leader by responding to their influence and moving together in the direction the CEO or CMO or marketing director would like to take the team. In this way, the values of the people being led generate the type of leadership that is most successful. This is especially important in B2B marketing, where turnover can be high – up to 35% among sales staff, according to stats from LinkedIn.

So what can today’s B2B leaders do to recognize and tap into the values of those they lead? Here are five simple ways to become a “servant leader,” for teams of all shapes and sizes.

1. Listen better

Fostering an inclusive leadership style starts with an internal heart check.  When do you shut people out?  When do you avoid their point of view? If this is difficult to see on your own, ask a trusted colleague to help you recognize your blind spots. If you show a true willingness to listen, you’ll be surprised at what people are suddenly willing to say.

It’s also important to look at the structure and rhythm of your business.  In what forums does your team or company gather information? Make decisions? Who is present or has access to those forums? The more transparency and trust you show as a leader – both in your personal interactions and in the online systems you use to track and manage work – the more you’ll be granted in return.

2. Stop pretending

Those being led today value an egalitarian organization that’s real and open. Strong, infallible leadership may have been desired at one time, but these days no one is buying that act. They know you’re human, and they need you to show your authentic human side – including true empathy, humility, and vulnerability – in order to trust and connect with you.

Here’s an example of what has changed: When I was in college, there was a company called Photo-Tech that would come to our parties. They took pictures during the party and then came around with a sheet of all the stills and sold you the ones you wanted.  But most importantly, they destroyed the ones you didn’t. 

Every person growing up today has a digital record of his or her life.  Some of it’s good, some isn’t.  The only difference between them and me is that I can pretend that I haven’t done something embarrassing.  They know they have, and deep down they’re pretty sure I did as well. They don’t appreciate the duplicity my generation shows when we pretend we’ve always been perfect.

Translating that example to our work lives, it’s more essential than ever to own up to current and past mistakes, admit what we don’t know, and create a culture where our team members feel free to do the same.

3. Believe in the good

The style and approach of all leaders is guided by their fundamental worldview of those they lead – in two key areas. The first is: Are people good or bad?  The leader who has the first view acts with the assumption that people are honorable, want to work hard, create great things, and can be trusted. The leader with the opposite view believes people need to be controlled (to keep them from being lazy) and inspected relentlessly (or they will produce shoddy work). Few leaders would admit to the second view, but our actions speak much louder than our words.

The second area is whether a leader comes into work thinking ‘what will I do for my people today?’ or thinking ‘what will my people do for me today?’ A servant leader is one who has a worldview that ‘people are good’ and ‘I am here for my team.’ The way this translates throughout your organization is that people tend to live up to your expectations of them, and they tend to start showing up for each other when this behavior is modeled at the top. 

4. Adapt to those you lead

Most demographers map the Millennial Generation as those born between 1983 and 2000, or folks currently between the ages of 18-35.  Given that they are now the majority of our workforce, those of us on the other side of 40 should not be seeking to have a digital native conform to our world.  Instead, we should be speaking to them where they are and starting to help them make their world.

The more I’ve embraced the importance of being guided by those I lead, the more I’ve adapted little things like the way I communicate.  I consume a lot of information by reading, but not everyone in my organization does the same.  It’s not because they’re lazy; it’s because they grew up with YouTube.  So today I may just shoot a quick, 2-minute video if I need to make a company-wide announcement rather than writing a long email. It takes a little more effort on my part, but if the message actually reaches my intended audience, then it’s worth it.

5. Have a heart

One of my very first customers, Bob McGlaun, imprinted a few essential words indelibly upon me, after I had made a big mistake out of ignorance. “Alex, I don’t care how much you know,” he said. “I just want to know how much you care.”

Caring is important. Fostering authentic human connections is important. Empathy is essential. Without it, today’s leaders won’t be able to provide the kind of essential feedback that keeps trust, respect, and accountability high. People may say they want to know when they’ve messed up, but it’s still hard to hear, especially from someone in authority.  If they believe that you have their best interests at heart, because you’ve proven it in past interactions, you have a better chance of offering constructive input. Then, through that input, you can increase the knowledge, skills, abilities, and ultimate success of the team.

Serve first, Lead second

Fundamentally, people just want to understand their role in the organization, believe that it matters, and feel pride in the work they do. If you can make sure that happens, then your work as a leader is easy. In this world of digital disruption, it’s the human skills that make the difference in effective leadership. Infallible, top-down management styles are so last century. These days, a little bit of listening, authenticity, belief in your people, and good old-fashioned empathy go a long way.

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