May 5, 2012
A constant train of thought which runs through my mind (sometimes at 3:30 am unfortunately)… What does it mean to be a leader? More specifically, what does it mean to be a leader at OST? How do we provide effective leadership to a group of highly motivated, self-directed, super-smart people? How do we infuse the idea of accountability and ownership throughout the organization while not being seen as directive and authoritarian? How do we provide the support and care required while still making sure we have the framework and processes needed to delight our clients and scale appropriately for growth?
I have seen and experienced many different models of leadership during my career. Most frequently the model has been very hierarchical and authoritarian. When the boss yells jump the response is to jump first, then ask how high and jump again. (As an aside, I hate it when I am referred to as someone’s “boss”… it provides an immediate and negative visceral reaction in my gut…)
No organization that I have been a part of was better at this than the United States Army. The US Army has the most top down, hierarchical and directive structure imaginable. In fact, the first thing you have to do when you join that organization is spend eight weeks in basic training learning how to say “yes” and take action as directed without hesitation. (They pretend that they are teaching you how to shoot a weapon and throw a hand grenade, but the fact of the matter is that what they are really teaching you is to do what you are told, when you are told and in the manner in which you were taught… there is no room for debate on the battlefield!)
The directive and authoritarian model is one which works well for the military… but does it translate well into the business world? I would argue that in some cases it does, in modified form. The larger the organization, the more difficult it becomes to manage without directive leadership. A huge, multi-national such as General Motors or General Electric (see… they even sound like militaristic) would be very difficult to lead without being very structured and hierarchical.
Another model, which closely aligns with the directive and authoritarian model, is the one which is based upon fear. The boss is to be feared and if you don’t ask how high when she says jump there is a good chance you will be out on the street and your family will starve while you search for cans to return at Meijer. Not a pretty thought! No one wants to work in that sort of world, but it is so prevalent across corporate America. Why? I think because it is easy… once the authority has been established and the direction has been stated, it happens. No more work is required… no consensus building… no empathetic discussion, no input from anyone not desired. I liken it to the rules around aspirin at the local high school… you will get suspended for bringing aspirin to school because the application of common sense is hard and fraught with risk for the school leadership. Therefore a blanket rule is enacted… and voila, it is all so easy now. Bring aspirin to school and get expelled. No ifs, ands or buts and no difficulty making the decision.
These models are not going to work at an organization like OST. The team is too smart, too motivated and has too many other options to stay in such an environment. And (by the way) those models aren’t any fun, and if you can’t have fun why would you stay someplace if you do not have too?
So what does work at a company like OST? The best way to describe it is “Servant Leadership.”
Servant leadership is the idea that we (as leaders) are there to serve the needs of the team and the individuals that make up the team. We exist to remove roadblocks and provide the service needed to allow the individual to excel and to succeed and to provide insanely great service to our clients. We exist to provide continuous improvement that makes it easier to develop and provide repeatable and profitable solutions to our client’s toughest problems. We exist to move heaven and earth to find a way to deliver a commitment when another client’s need has trumped the schedule. We exist to remove the burden of responsibility for the little things, so that the team can pay attention to the big things. (That’s why we have all those snacks and fridges full of pop… no need to sweat the small stuff around having the change for the snack machine!)
Sounds simple right? Like with most things in life that is not the case… there are competing responsibilities around silly things like setting strategic direction, expense control, gross margin management and bottom line profitability which sometimes work at odds to being a servant leader. But at OST the really cool thing is that while those are important responsibilities, they really do come second to the responsibility to provide servant leadership.
Our stated priorities at OST are Employees first… then clients… then OST. It is our belief that if we serve our employees and take care of them, then they will take care of our clients, and that will take care of OST. Simple… yet difficult… but it makes working at OST and being a leader at OST so much fun and so rewarding!