Servant Leadership – The Men’s Warehouse, ACT, Org Silence

Servant Leadership

The Men’s Warehouse – Stanford Graduate School of Business

Of all the things I identified as “what I wanted to be when I grew up”, a salesman was not one of them.  Don’t get me wrong, America is a capitalist country and sales people are necessary.  Certainly they get a bad rap because of the slimy practices of many.  But there are good sales people out there; that truly care about making the customer happy and not just lining their own pockets.  Of course they’re there to make money, but that doesn’t have to be their only motivation. 

I learned young (while selling greeting cards and candy for school activities) that selling is a gruelling, painful, rejection ridden nightmare if you’re not built to sell.  So while I don’t necessarily care for selling, I can see the art inherent in being a good honest sales person.  Apparently, so can the Men’s Warehouse.  Not only do they recognize the trait, they’ve learned to foster, train, and build people up to master their sales techniques.  You might think this post is about selling, but……..it’s not.  It’s actually about servant leadership and how to treat employees.  I bring up all the sales stuff because Men’s Warehouse appears so appealing based on the article, that even I, the worst of salesmen wouldn’t mind working there and selling suits. 

George Zimmer the founder of Men’s Warehouse described servant leadership as “just an extension of left-wing student politics”.  While I couldn’t possibly disagree more with his definition, his leadership prowess and success are indisputable.  Forgoing the political overtones, I want to highlight some of the things I love about the management philosophy at Men’s Warehouse in bullet style.

  • The employee comes first and our customer comes second.  I can’t say enough about this ideology.  We all know how important customers are to our success.  It goes without saying.  The problem most companies have is their failure to recognize the importance of their employees.  It’s one thing to “value your employees”, many companies give lip service to this very attitude.  But to place them ahead of your customers is not only revolutionary, it is pure genius.  A valued employee will take ownership of their piece of the business and will serve your customers like they’re his customers.   Brilliant!!
  • Being a good role model and servant leader were taken very seriously by the company.  How many times do you hear the term “role model” at work?  I never hear it where I work, but I wish I did.  It means you’re coaching, teaching, and paying attention to your actions to the point that your employees emulate you.  How many of us actually have management that we want to emulate?  How many of us take the time to teach our employees how to have the kind of success that we’ve had?  This goes back to caring about your employees.  It’s all part of the same ideology, one that places a premium on people far above that which is placed on inventory.  Instead of maximizing profits, you can maximize your company and its place in the world.  Will you be remembered more for the extra .27% earnings or the impact you had in people’s lives?  I know, profits are why we’re in business, but who says we can’t be about more than the bottom line?  We all want to “do well” in business, but who says we can’t also “do good”?
  • Maximize the individual’s self-esteem.  Men’s Warehouse actually has policy in place with directives dictating how to increase the self-esteem of their workers.  Wow.  I’m not even sure my Mom had a plan for doing that.  It goes to the idea that a confident worker will take more / better risks and treat customers better.  Men’s warehouse believes in two methods for improving the self-esteem of their work force.  The first being to “catch them in the act of doing something right”.  This doesn’t happen on accident.  It requires a purposeful observance of employee activities to emphasize what each is doing well.  Don’t confuse this with micromanagement.  It’s all about looking for the good and pointing it out.  The other method was constructive criticism.  Constructive criticism is invaluable.  Realize this is different from pure criticism.  The point is not to be mean-spirited but to take an active role in improving the employee.  When done right an employee will thank you for constructive criticism.  Are your employees thanking you for the correction you’re giving them?  If not, you’re doing it wrong.

Although the post revolves around Men’s Warehouse and their management style, this is a great example of servant leadership, which I intend to write about in my next post.  I love the concept and keep finding more articles and blogs regarding the practice.  It’s something I hope to explore more fully next time.

ACT – Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves

This article was long and kind of boring.  The main thrust was quite good however.  The main idea was that the existing change philosophies have to be augmented by one major factor.  Instead  of managers looking only at the employees as people who need to change, they must look at themselves first.  People are going to change only when they have the proper motivation, but if managers expect that they can force change on everyone but exclude themselves it will never work. 

Organizational Silence

The idea with this article was that employees as much as management tend to see the deficiencies in an organization but they tend not to make an effort to change them for fear of the negative repercussions of speaking out.  This article went on to show just how bad it is when employees at large are not involved in decision-making and are not included in change plans.  Management also makes the mistake of misinterpreting the silence of their employees.  Instead of realizing that fear and lack of faith in the management team are the reasons, they assume that employees don’t care about the organization and are self-interested and unmotivated.  This is yet another time when management needs to look at themselves and the system that they’ve built instead of assuming that employees are lazy or stupid.  They work in the environment that management builds and are constrained by the rules (written or observed) that management creates.  If there is a behavioral issue, instead of assuming the employee is to blame, re-evaluate the system.

The Layoff

Layoffs punish the innocent and absolve the guilty.  This is my thesis regarding the practice of laying people off.  That may be a little over the top, but it’s close enough in my opinion.  It sounds harsh right?  Well layoffs are harsh, so why shouldn’t those doing the laying off bear accountability?  Managers in most companies have turned the word “team” into a huge cliche’.  They do this as a method of motivating people and creating a feeling of inclusiveness.  If you’re sincere it’s a really great way to work with your people.  But if you really mean it, you’ll treat people like team mates, not commodities.  To take it a step further, if you watch sports, when a team fails who gets fired first?  I’m just saying………

The Harvard Business Review studied a case called “The Layoff”.  This case study made a rather large impression on me, that will remain for the rest of my career.   In a way, a layoff says we as leaders have failed.  We’ve not anticipated the bad times or we’ve been fiscally irresponsible in the good times.  In this case the company was in trouble financially, but they had a huge amount of cash in the bank for the purpose of “critical acquisitions”.  (This tells me they saw an acquisition as an emergency but a lay off as business as usual.)  The management team was tasked with coming up with a layoff strategy.  Apparently they had already cut costs and reduced inventory but there was little detail about what they did to improve their situation.  They decided a layoff was the way to go. 

I am firmly resolved to the idea that layoffs must be the very last resort for a company, but I’m not naive.  Sometimes layoffs just have to be done.  That’s obvious.  However, I find it unconscionable that so many companies lay off their workers as anything other than the very last act of desperation.  Here’s a brilliant news flash:  The economy is cyclical, be prepared because there will be another recession.  If you as an executive have not prepared your company for an economic downturn, you should consider laying yourself off first.  If you have prepared your company for an unfortunate economy but the damage is far worse than anyone could possibly anticipate (like now) you should have follow the guidelines below.

Layoffs have to be the very last resort.  Did I say that already?  You need to understand that you’re not just losing some meaningless inanimate asset.  You are taking food out of the mouths of your “team mates”, their spouses, and their children.  Your people have homes and bills that they cannot pay without a job.  You are taking away their livelihood, their medical insurance, and possibly crushing their self-esteem and self efficacy.   Not to mention the unemployment rate these days and the difficulty in finding new jobs. 

Do NOT leave your people hanging.  I was informed 2 weeks ago that my company will be laying off 20 people.  We probably won’t know until June who those 20 people are.  Laying someone off is horrible, but having to worry about it for weeks or months is the worst part.  A company that creates this type of worry can almost guarantee that some people are working up their resumes and looking for new jobs.  It’s conceivable that a poorly executed lay off could turn into a mass exodus.

Let your people go with dignity.  Give them the best severance you can and offer to give them a reference for their next job.  Remember, you’re laying them off not firing them.  It is YOUR responsibility to make this as amicable a situation as possible.  If you put in the effort to make the situation amicable it can go a long way toward mitigating your reputation hit in the future.  No one wants a job they have to worry about constantly, but if it’s known that you take care of your employees even on those rare occasions that layoffs have to happen, it will help establish your company as a caring employer.  If you lay people off with no severance while having security march them to the door before booting them in the hind quarters, your company’s reputation will suffer. 

If you must lay people off, use a fair and consistent methodology for doing so.  There are a ton of ideas for doing this:  “first in, first out”, “last in, first out” , “higher paid first”, “performance review based”, etc.  All of these are horrible, especially performance based which can create a really political and overly competitive environment.  Soon you have a business filled with people who know how to job the system, not necessarily the best employees.  Also most performance review systems are broken, so laying off people using them as the criteria will be inherently broken as well.  Whatever method you choose, explain that method to the entire company, and proceed with care.

Most of all, have respect for the individual employees.  The reason they’re being laid off probably has little to do with them.  Remember that the ex-employee of today can be the boss of tomorrow.

Level 5 Leadership & Chapter 12 Extra Readings

Level 5 Leadership

Given my love for the “Good to Great, or Just Good” article from last week, it probably isn’t much of a surprise that I find some compelling flaws in the “Level 5 Leadership” ideology.  While the author, Jim Collins, makes some good points regarding leadership, I find the whole Level 5 Leadership contention somewhat arbitrary.

Level 5 leaders, according to the article, universally possess 2 identifiable yet unquantifiable character traits.  The traits described are personal humility and professional will.  Collins describes this combination as “paradoxical” apparently finding this to be an extremely rare combination.  Collins justification for this assertion is that the research which was performed for the Good to Great book was the same research which produced his “evidence” for Level 5 leadership.  Because the research team wasn’t looking to identify leadership traits, Collins asserts that these findings are empirical and not ideological.  However, just as in Good to Great, there was no hypothesis given or tested.  The research team looked at a small sampling of companies which met predefined standards and garnered conclusions based only on the sample group.  Even if the sample group were statistically significant (it’s far to small to be), lacking a hypothesis research cannot be identified as empirical.  Collins uses universal terms to describe the findings gleaned from a very small sampling of companies.  This is not empirical or scientific in anyone’s definition except Collins’. 

While I agree a great deal with some of the conclusions regarding good leadership, I find the level 1-5 rankings to be extremely arbitrary.  Collins group makes the rankings sound official and final when they cannot be.  The sampling was too small and their window was too short (15 years) to make a realistic assessment of great leadership.  That was all covered in the Good to Great write-up last week so I won’t rehash it. 

From my perspective the Level 5 Leadership approach is a guideline (not THE guideline) for finding good potential leaders, but I don’t at all agree with the combination requirements for the various levels.  For example, according to the research a Level 5 leader has to be shy and avoid the spotlight.  While I like that type of person better, I could go on for days pointing out great leaders that did not avoid the spotlight completely.  Shy is not necessarily a good leadership quality.  I would even say that being comfortable in the spotlight might be a requirement for a great leader.  Not that they need to bask in their own glory, but they should be capable of public speaking, and comfortable with public scrutiny. 

At any rate, I would take the Level 5 hierarchy and use some of the traits as guidelines for effective leadership, but I don’t at all agree with the “Good to Great” or “Level 5 Leadership” claims.  Great leaders can come from anywhere, and have any number of personality traits.  At some point I’ll blog on the book “Lincoln on Leadership” and paint a clearer picture of my view of leadership.  You can also look back to my post on “Leading by Example” (http://wp.me/p1iUI4-1k) to get a view of my priorities respective to being a leader.

Chapter 12 Extra Reading

“For Lt. Withers, Act of Mercy Has Unexpected Sequel” 

The Lt. Withers reading was quite sad.  I’m not sure why this was an assignment, but there was some nice lessons learned.  From the article I got the idea that doing the right thing is far more important than following orders or obeying rules.  While there can always be negative consequences when our morals supersede our leader’s rule set, it’s what we do in those situations that defines us as human beings.  Martin Luther King said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  While Lt. Withers understood the rules and reasons for the rules, in this particular situation he was bound by a higher set of rules.  These are the rules which define our humanity.  Sometimes the potential punishment is worth disobeying the rules to do what you feel is right.

“How a Marine Lost His Command In a Race To Baghdad”

The story of Colonel Dowdy has an ending quite the opposite of Lt Withers’ story.  Colonel Dowdy chose his men over a speedier rush to Baghdad, because the towns he had to go through to achieve speed would have resulted in a lot of dead marines.  I don’t really understand all the reasons for Colonel Dowdy’s firing.  However, many times as stupid as it is, perception is viewed as reality.  The bulldozer operator being caught reading a book rather than fixing the air strip and the Colonel being seen sleeping had to have played a large roll.  I don’t believe at all that perception is reality unless you’re either really arrogant or really stupid.  To assume you know what’s happening after only a cursory set of observances is absurd.  However, many people live right in the middle of this type of absurdity.  General Mattis is apparently one of them.  While he is the boss, and you have to listen to the boss, the whole tenant of the speed war was to let the officers lead.  Still I can’t believe that these are the only circumstances which resulted in the firing of General Dowdy.  At any rate, I stand behind him.  He did what he thought was best, and put the needs and lives of his people ahead of himself.  That is leadership you can stand behind.  It’s too bad he has to face consequences for doing what he believed is right.

Diamonds in the Data Mine & Harrahs

Diamonds in the Data Mine

For the last few years we’ve heard extensive horror stories about failed I.T. initiatives from Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to Business Intelligence (BI) programs.  It’s seems for every success story there are ten or more failed initiatives.  And the stories of painful Electronic Medical Records (EMR) rollouts haven’t been terribly kind to I.T. practitioners either.  That’s part of what makes this story so appealing. 

One of the really big successes we’ve studied throughout my Master’s of Information Systems program is Harrah’s Entertainment.  This great success story comes at the beginning of the Business Intelligence push and the “Diamonds in the Data Mine” article is a step by step recipe for Harrah’s success.  I could go on for days recounting the building of the BI system and how they used data mining and marketing to build a better brand and expand their business, but that’s really boring so I am going to take a different tack. 

Aside from all the wonderful technical accomplishments, Harrah’s success story is actually a story of customer service.  While building a strong I.T. infrastructure is important, one of the things we as I.T. workers often forget to ask ourselves is “why are we doing this?”  We do it not because technology is cool, although that is certainly a side benefit for us that love the bits and bytes.  We do it in one way or another to serve our customers better.  It is my contention that Harrah’s successful use of BI was at least partly attributable to their focus on the “why” question. 

Harrah’s success is based not on technology (although that was an important piece).  It is based on their prioritization of customer service and giving their customers what they want.  While most companies give lip-service to the customer experience, very few really do anything to improve in this area.  Harrah’s used technology to figure out what their customers wanted and gave it to them.  In addition, they incented their employees to provide excellent customer service.  They DID NOT tell employees to provide great customer service and then incent them on bottom line figures.  They paid bonuses based on customer satisfaction ratings which were completely un-related to the bottom line.  This is revolutionary, and the reason (in my opinion) for Harrah’s continued success even in times of economic downturn. 

Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc: Rewarding Our People

While customer satisfaction is the end goal, it certainly can not be accomplished without the buy-in of the front-line employees who actually serve the customers.  While creating a good customer experience is often a topic of discussion at leadership levels, it’s rare that a company actually incents their employees to deliver that desired service level.  Even if they do, they don’t give enough guidelines describing the perfect customer interaction.  This is where Harrah’s really scored. 

A big part of the puzzle was finding the right people to provide excellent customer service.  This can sometimes be accomplished through standardized hiring practices, but is often a complete crap-shoot.  Having lived most of my life in Nevada, I understand the idea of being treated “like a casino employee”.  That’s not to degrade those who work the casinos, but they would tell you they are often treated as commodities.  This makes it all the harder to attract good employees.  So when you find a good worker, it’s very important (at least Harrah’s thought so) to keep them.  While most casinos don’t invest much in new employees, Harrah’s went the other direction providing training and several check points during the early stages of employment to make sure new employees understood their overall value to the company. 

As was covered in the Diamonds write-up above, Harrah’s used incentives as evidence to the employees that customer service was their main focus.  While the goals were steep and the rewards were minor, it was a bragging point for employees to get these bonuses.  It was especially notable that the bonuses were not tied to overall company performance.  If a property didn’t meet its bottom line numbers, but the employee met their customer service goals, they would still get the bonus.  While a token gesture, this really shows that the incentive is 100% about the customer experience and not bottom line figures.  This gives the employee a sense that they can control their bonus destiny. 

While I highly believe in the need for EXCELLENT customer service, it absolutely must not come at the expense of your employees.  As in the Harrah’s case, it must be done in partnership with them.  If you tell the employees that the customer matters but they do not, you will NEVER achieve customer centricity.  Harrah’s was successful because they trained their employees provide the desired level of service, and then incented them to act accordingly.  As has been noted, “that which is incented gets done.”

Good to Great and Evidence Based Management

  • Good to Great, or Just Good?

Perhaps it shows a bit of an attitude problem that I take joy when certain business assumptions are disproven.  I find it especially comical when business leaders blindly follow the practices of a particular author because it’s the popular thing to do, or continue to misuse the same idioms over and over again to explain their faith in a particular methodology. 

The book Good to Great being a bestseller, and having been so widely circulated doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but I’ve seen business leaders that treat the thing like it’s a business bible.  So I revel somewhat in reading the article Good to Great, or Just Good?  This article doesn’t disprove the findings of Good to Great, but it does create a severe credibility problem for the author. 

The article centers around two excellent arguments relating to the research methods used by GTG author Jim Collins.  Collins is no dummy but after reviewing the article, you can see how the research methods seriously stretch credibility. 

The first error Collins’ team made centered around their use of data mining.  Data mining is the process of searching collected data for patterns and formulating explanations for those patterns.  These two steps were actually followed by Collin’s team.  After this has been done, extensive testing must be performed to test veracity of the patterns formed from the data.  This is where Collins’ team blew it.  They created a series of patterns from the data that they gathered but they didn’t do the extensive testing necessary to prove that those patterns had any real empirical value. 

Collins’ whole point was to try to gather evidence without “starting with a set of assumptions”.  We call those assumptions hypotheses in the scientific world.  Have a predefined set of ideas to prove or disprove would have actually worked in Collins’ favor.  The second fatal flaw was assuming causation where none existed.  Collins started with what he felt were great companies and found 5 commonalities.  He reasoned that if a company possessed those 5 traits they would be great.  If he had started with the traits and then found companies that possessed them his argument would have had more meaning. 

To put it bluntly, the research methods used by Collins’ team were completely backwards.  While it is a neat idea to go in without any pre-conceived notions, it’s obvious you can find commonalities in anything without a set of guiding principle at the outset.  Having a stated set of hypotheses to prove or disprove is a tried and true research method.  I fail to see a point in trying to reinvent that process if you’re doing research.  Although the book sold like crazy, it has the business credibility of “Mad Magazine” in my mind.  Spotty research disguised as empirical data creates a book good for little more than bathroom reading.  The article on the other hand, was great.

  • Evidence Based Management

The second reading was a great article with the above name.  It compared evidence based medicine with management styles.  A lot of discussion was given to using evidence in decision-making rather than using some of the older management methods for doing so.  

One of the main reasons given for the lack of use of evidence in decision-making is the feeling of managers that their experience trumps information collected in a study.  In some situations this probably makes good sense, but evidence based management has a huge following because it’s about doing what makes the most sense for the company, not the manager. 

Probably the best example of the problem faced by companies that don’t practice evidence based medicine is their lack of ability to fight through bad ideas and the “that’s how we do things here” syndrome prevalent in many organizations.  The best example cited in the article, was the use of forced rankings in performance reviews.  While it works well for a company like GE, it can be and is a huge problem for other companies.  The evidence suggests that this form of performance appraisal is hugely unpopular and creates distrust between employer and employee.  There are a host of other reasons not to manage in this manner, but many business leaders will cite the success of GE.  The problem is, there is no contravening evidence of what GE’s performance would look like without this practice.  There are hundreds of examples of other companies that have suffered from this practice but GE touts it as a critical success factor.  

Overall, the idea of the article was to use evidence to make decisions.  I can’t imagine how anyone could argue logically against the idea.  But it appears many companies and many managers are still managing by the “gut feeling” or “that’s how I’ve always done it” approach.  While these practices may not always cause problems, the won’t ever be evidence based.  Evidence based management, just like evidence based medicine is necessary to keep us honest and moving forward.  As the article states, if doctors practiced medicine the way many companies practice management, there would be more unnecessarily sick or dead patients and many more doctors in jail.

The Dean’s Disease: How the Darker Side of Power Manifests Itself in the Office of the Dean

Arthur G. Bedeian wrote this article regarding the dark side of humanity that often materializes when one is put in a position of power.  This article focuses on college and university deans, but it’s easy to extrapolate this out to other high-ranking positions.  These changes in behavior are referred to as the metamorphic effects of power.  I see two really great arguments in this article and would like to examine both of them.  Remember the term “locus of control”? 

Position 1 – When one attains a great deal of power, such as becoming a new dean, a dark part of some personality types suddenly begins to assert itself even if there has been no indication of that dark side in the person’s past.  This dark side is a deeply seeded character flaw that can either be controlled or allowed to fester.  As with all leaders, it is our job to notice these flaws in ourselves and take measures to ensure that we squelch those tendencies and lead in a way befitting the position we’ve been given.  We have no one but ourselves to blame when we become power-hungry and begin to walk all over people to accomplish our own agendas.  In short, those with the requisite internal locus of control should recognize their misbehavior and take whatever action is necessary to correct this behavior, up to and including resignation. 

Position 2 – Almost the moment a new dean accepts the position, he is inundated with people sucking up to him in order to garner favor and position themselves in their own place of power.  With their new-found power over people and resources, dean’s are treated as something like royalty around the university.  They hold power over careers, salaries, positions, praise, and recognition.  Many of the people under the dean’s leadership spend the majority of their time in self-preservation mode using flattery and agreement as tools to stay within the “inner circle”.  It is human nature to become puffed up and think more highly of yourself than truly deserved when you have people constantly telling you how brilliant you are.  Anyone would start believing their own press in a situation like that.  For those reasons, it is up to those who serve under the dean to provide reality checks and remind him that he is a fallible human being and to challenge him when necessary.

While it wasn’t the main thrust of the article, I couldn’t help but notice that the “Dean’s Disease” article contained a subtle argument around loci of control.  Someone with an internal locus of control would realize their part in developing the “Dean’s Disease” and would take steps to resolve the problems they’ve created.  On the other hand, someone with an external locus of control would blame the environment, the teachers and staff, the flattery, and everything else to avoid responsibility for their actions. 

There was a lot more to this article, but my lesson learned was to take responsibility for my actions.  Don’t take yourself so seriously that you treat people like stepping-stones for your career.  Admit when you’re wrong, and make up for your shortcomings by surrounding yourself with people who challenge you and tell you the truth even when it hurts.  It’s been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Not that I claim to be smarter than Lord Acton, but I don’t see it that way.  Power can have a big impact on us, but it cannot negatively affect our behavior unless we let it.  Remember that you choose your behavior, but you can’t always choose the consequences for that behavior.

Indepth: Iraq

“Indepth: Iraq United States Senate Select Committe on Intelligence” is a 500 page document criticizing the US intelligence efforts leading up to the invasion of Iraq.  While there is a lot of political mumbo jumbo that could be wrought from this document, this isn’t a political blog.  So in the interest of pulling some information useful to business out of the report, we will leave the politics for another time.

One of the major issues cited in the paper was bad information being given to management.  While this is extremely harmful when the invasion of a country is imminent, it is also a major problem for businesses.  Managers can only act on the information they’ve been given.  If that information is of dubious accuracy, management can only make bad decisions.  Having a reliable source of business information is the key to a company’s success.  Business Intelligence (BI) systems have been a major trend in business because of the need for accurate, on time data for the purposes of making timely business decisions. 

Group think was a major concern with the intelligence gathering efforts prior to the Iraq war.  Group think according to merriam-webster.com is



“a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”.

The problem with group think is the formation of conclusions that don’t necessarily have a foundation in reality.  In this case the purchase of multi-purpose technology led intelligence workers to make assumptions that would not have been made if the intelligence had been properly vetted.  We find the same principle in the business world.  Group think can lead us to market incorrectly and waste our resources “barking up the wrong tree”.  While we have business leaders whose job it is to steer our businesses in the correct direction, the use of business intelligence tools can help minimize the possibility of group think by giving us concrete numbers and trends based on current market conditions as compared to similar conditions in the past. 

While this paper had little to do with business, it gives us a good model for comparison and makes a strong case for need to gather reliable information.  Many businesses fly by the seat of the CEO’s pants, but with the ever expanding capabilites of business intelligence tools, “gut feeling” business is not longer the norm.  Knowing where to put your resources to maximize the return on investment is now more of a science than a swag.