One of the oldest known quotes on leadership still applies to today’s sales manager: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people; they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, when his work is done, they will all say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” The speaker was philosopher Lao Tze speaking on servant leadership. The year was 500 BC. More than a passing fad, servant leadership continues to energize leaders around the world – from Southwest Airlines to Starbucks – delivering proven bottom line results. It is a discipline, a tough-love approach requiring character strength and self-confidence from the sales leader as well as accountability from the sales team.
Servant leaders take an employee-first rather than a customer-first approach. They make sure their reps are well trained, coached, encouraged and supported. They include their reps in decision making, problem solving and goal setting. They listen to their reps and meet their needs to achieve objectives. They collaborate with sales people, creating a vision and setting challenging objectives together. They hold themselves and their reps accountable to high benchmarks.
Following are three ways servant leaders are developing high-performing sales teams:
- Improved retention rates – Servant leadership improves rep retention, helping keep experienced sales people on the payroll. According to a Baylor University study of 501 full time sales people, “Adopting an employee-oriented approach will improve turn-over intention, a common problem in sales.” By placing sales people’s needs as most important, “leaders reap the benefit of improved employee attitude and job satisfaction (and lower job stress)… By placing sales people’s needs as most important, “leaders serve as role models to their employees and reap the benefit of improved employee attitude and job satisfaction. While it may on the surface appear counter intuitive to place employee needs as a top priority, even above company objectives, this study, as well as supporting research, demonstrates that servant leadership has myriad benefits to the organization and is an effective tool to retain employees.” Servant leaders, according to the study, enhance “person-organization fit,” helping align reps with company values, beliefs and goals by including them in decision-making and collaboratively shaping the company’s value structure. Essentially, servant leaders help sales reps feel that they truly fit the organization and belong there. In addition, servant leadership increases the level of “organizational commitment” the attachment and identification the rep feels for the employer – this sense of employee dedication leads to “a deeper desire to stay with the organization.”
- Increasing sales productivity – Southwest Airlines, one of the premier servant leader companies, has led the airline industry in profitability and productivity indices for many years. Herb Kelleher helped found the airline on the following premise: “Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees, and the rest follows from that.”
A study by authors James Sipe and Don Frick showed 11 companies with servant leadership as a component of management strategy delivered a 17.5% return on stocks compared to 10.8% average return of the 500 largest publicly-held companies. A subsequent study showed companies with servant leadership as the predominant leadership strategy showed a 24.2% return. In addition, this and other studies have shown that servant leadership also improves relations with customers, ostensibly having the effect of improved sales and repeat sales. According to the researchers, “Essentially, employees learn to treat their customers by observing how their managers treat them.” This gives the servant leader a performance advantage that’s particularly important in sales where customer satisfaction is everything.
- Reciprocity – The Law of Reciprocity, a basic sales practice, says people repay in kind what another person has provided. Just like we feel obligated to repay favors and gifts, subordinates are likely to reciprocate the kind of positive treatment received from a sales manager. The manager who respects sales people will likely receive respect from them – likewise for the following important factors (the more leaders give, the more they receive):
It’s just human nature to want to return the favor of being treated well. The key thing is that it starts with the servant leader as the giver. In effect, reciprocity creates a powerful synergy that drives teamwork, enthusiasm, buy-in and commitment to company goals. However, this law is never a one-to-one ratio, so don’t expect immediate and equal reciprocity from your people. When the payback comes, you’ll probably see more of a two-to-one ratio: You give two times what you receive.
On the side of the coin, we’ve all experienced the opposite of positive reciprocity which is negative reciprocity – which means your reps are likely to repay discourtesy with discourtesy, and reciprocate in kind as they receive distrust, condescension or ridicule.
Servant leadership isn’t for everyone – it takes sales managers who are bold, self-assured and confident in their abilities – but when applied with sincerity and selflessness, it has the potential to transform a sales group into a high performance sales team.
Zig Ziglar, legendary speaker and author on sales effectiveness, captured the very essence of servant leadership by saying, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”