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Howes: Leaders Eat Last

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The U.S. Marines have a rule: "Officers Eat Last." It's a fundamental philosophy of United States Marine Corps leadership that officers wait to eat until all Marines under them in rank have gotten their food. The rule creates a sense of unity, instills loyalty, and effectively means servant leadership. That's a powerful paradigm, and in fact, there is an entire book about the concept entitled "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek.


Let's start with the term "servant leadership." It's become a popular buzzword as of late and frequently gets tossed out with a head nod, but it isn't often further explored. The Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines the phrase: "A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the "top of the pyramid." So servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible."


Let's think about what that might look like in your organization and why it might be important. 


I'll share an example of servant leadership in an organization, and how I was particularly proud of a team member who demonstrated the phrase "Leaders eat last." At our company Christmas party in December 2021, we ordered from Omaha Steaks a large assortment of filet mignon steaks, potatoes, and other gifts to give to team members and their families. Only I had miscalculated the number of team members we actually had. Having recently added two new folks, we were short of steaks to give out. When we got to the end of the line and noted the dwindling pile, I realized we had no steaks left for my general manager or myself. We looked at each other and said, "Leaders eat last." Now we got our own steaks later, in a few days, but what did that gesture say to our team at that moment? That we put them first. 


Servant Leadership In Action

So what does servant leadership look like in operation? We realized we needed to adjust our compensation and culture about three years ago. Neither of them was desperately broken, but we wanted to get ahead of the curve and recreate our workplace, making it a dynamic center of learning, team, and development. And we realized that servant leadership was the key. I'll share some things that seem to be working well for us here and how we keep connected with our team members, even when our team is split into two separate locations. Next month, I'll have additional suggestions about how we have implemented servant leadership, especially related to our team member's Personal Goal Plan worksheets. 


Get Out Of the Office: Walking around the shop is one of the key ways to show that we as managers or owners are ready, available, and engaged. Set a "regularly irregular" time to do this, twice a day, morning and afternoon. Too often, when I visit other shops, I find the manager hidden behind a closed office door, creating a physical, auditory, and visible barrier to engagement. There are times when having a closed-door meeting is necessary, but generally, that should be the exception rather than the rule. 


When you walk through the workshop, smile. A lot. Stop and say good morning, ask about the family, and don't hesitate to make personal notes about each employee beforehand (I used my phone to make notes on children, an upcoming vacation, weekend plans, and unique hobbies). It also helps to review their personal goal sheets before the visit. Additionally, this stroll allows you to check shop cleanliness, operations, and morale of team members. And your presence on the floor will create opportunities for team members to approach you. 


Call Out and Recognize Individual Team Members: While you're out on the shop floor, there is nothing that I like better than complimenting a team member in front of their peers. Something simple like "Ms. Smith called and said you did a great job on her Audi. It runs like new." Or sharing a letter, card, or review from a happy client with the group. And printed copies are even better. Write each team member's name at the top, as you created it just for them. They'll pay attention. Be specific and authentic; you'll be amazed how that positive feedback warms the atmosphere. If this rings true for seasoned team members, it's doubly true for junior or less experienced employees still seeking to understand our culture.


What we say and do with new team members will not just influence their day today but actually can affect their entire career path! Reflect back on your early teachers from grade or middle school. Chances are you can remember their names and what they might have said or made you feel decades ago, so keep your memories for new team members encouraging. So, as a rule, keep these mentions and memories positive. Adhere to the old phrase, "Praise in public, and correct in private" as the golden rule. I like to remind managers that they are the "cheerleaders" for our team. They set the tone for each day, not just for themselves but for the entire organization! 


Share a Meeting and a Meal Together: Just over a year ago, we started the formalized process of having an all-hands monthly team dinner, meeting, and book club. Our meetings are typically held at our new training center on the first Wednesday of each month, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The dinner is catered, so all the team needs to do is show up. Meals are simple, usually from a local restaurant, pizza and Mexican food being the favorites. 


We focus on three things, a brief review of the company's performance: how we are meeting past goals and standards, workflow and operations, and then tools and training. We freely share production statistics, everything from billed hours to client satisfaction, so we can celebrate successes and discuss challenges together. It's part of inculcating a culture of pride, trust, and ownership. Once we've hit those key points, open the meeting up to the team for suggestions and feedback. For newer team members, it's often the first that someone else has actually solicited their input on operations, equipment, and training, and I've often heard how much it makes them feel vested in the team. Your employees spend as much time in the workplace as they do with their families, so a real connection and the belief that their manager cares about them as people is a tremendous driver of employee satisfaction. 


Coach Personal and Professional Development: One of the most critical factors for many technicians considering a job change is the desire to move to a shop that encourages and supports them in increasing their skills and experience. One of the best ways a leader can serve his team is by helping them grow and develop to become better team members, husbands, wives, and community members. 


So, our third and final point in the team meetings I mentioned earlier, the book club, is designed to address this concern. For our book club, we start with an agreed-upon theme; it's crucial to pick something that will be of general interest and benefit to all. Ideally, they can apply something at once or in stages as they learn and will bring tangible value to the individual and organization. We'll gift each team member a printed copy of the book, or an audiobook, as they feel would be most helpful. Each theme aims to help individual members grow personally and professionally to develop into a team. 


Last year, we studied human relations (HR) with Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People," which lasted about three months or so. That seems to be a critical time frame. You want to choose something that can be read, reviewed, discussed, and wrapped in 60 to 90 days, so folks don't lose interest in it. And it helps to talk about the book during the work week and apply lessons or learning. For the Carnegie book, we wrote a book's principle down on the shop scheduling whiteboard each week and took turns sharing how we applied it with clients, team members, and family. 


Our next topic, which tied closely into the HR theme, was leadership, and we used Jock Willink's (a former Navy Seal) excellent book "Extreme Ownership," which seemed to really engage the team. I'd like to go back and spend more time on this in the future, ideally with a study guide. There are many lessons from how the military operates, from delegation to specialization to cross-training, that we can apply in a professional automotive service organization. 


More recently, the theme has been "A Band Of Brothers," loosely based on the book "Building Your Band of Brothers" by Stephen Mansfield. Following this, we started our "Speaker's Series," where we bring subject matter experts to engage and teach. For the band of brothers theme, I brought in a friend from the Army Special Forces, who spoke directly about leadership, team building, and the concept of empathy because of a personal tragedy. This March, we invited a financial advisor in to talk with our team about personal finance, investing, and retirement planning. And most recently, a paramedic spoke about handling medical emergencies one might encounter at home, on the road, or at work. These talks, about 45-60 minutes, are used to cap off the meeting and convey practical life skills. 


Remember, It's Not An Easy Job

Let's face it, managing a team of technicians can be complicated, and none of us are born with the magic DNA for leadership. That's a skill we learn and model from others. But if we lead with our heart and our head, we can balance the needs of the shop, the team, and the individual to create a work environment that is positive, efficient, and productive. It's no easy task! You can study management techniques for years (and many do!), but some simple, everyday things have worked. 


So, this sounds like work, right? Based on our experience, I can promise you it is well worth it. I'm always a student; the world and the workplace are dynamic, and we need to change and adapt as leaders. So let me know how servant leadership has worked for you and how you implement it in your business!


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