Servant Leadership: Essential for Moving Beyond Employee Satisfaction and Engagement


Share on LinkedIn

In the consumer world, satisfaction has only incidental proven connection to customer experience and behavior, and engagement has similar challenges for employees (and customers). Many companies are still measuring customer sat in hopes that learning about its drivers will help build customer loyalty, but satisfaction isn’t contemporary regarding decision-making or reflective of what is going on in the customer’s real, emotional world. The same can be said of engagement, which is simply too limited as applied to both customer and employee behavior.

‘Employee engagement’ has many meanings and interpretations, but relatively little of it has to do, by conceptual definition, specifically with impact on customer behavior and impact on the employee experience. Typically, there is little or no mention/inclusion of ‘customer’ or ‘customer focus’ elements in measurement or analysis, or in application such as training, of employee engagement. Though customer experience, and resultant behavior, is certainly impacted by engagement, it is more tangential and inferential than purposeful in nature.

There is growing general agreement that both developing employee ambassadors and customer advocates should receive high (or certainly higher) priority and emphasis if an enterprise is going to be successful. What building ambassadorship does mandate, however, is that having employees focus on the customer will definitely drive more positive experiences and stronger loyalty behavior (for both stakeholder groups). Because antecedent approaches to employee engagement (through research and application) are principally about productivity and fit or alignment, and offer an organization only modest insight about level or degree of customer-centricity, more connection between employee behavior and customer behavior builds focus, effectiveness, and profitability. That is what the scope of employee ambassadorship helps to provide.

Servant Leadership

In my next book which will be published in 2017, Employee Ambassadorship: Optimizing Stakeholder-Centric Behavior from the Inside-Out and Outside-In, many of these issues are being addressed. Here, we will focus on one which may be the most important in driving stakeholder-centricity: leadership, and more essentially, servant leadership.

To make sure that everything covered is based in reality, i.e. what works vs. dealing in theories from a 30,000 foot level, I’ve gone back 50 years to the “Fathers of Servant Leadership”, Max De Pree and Robert Greenleaf. If you don’t recognize their names, you should get to know them because their ideas will have much to do with future stakeholder-centric cultures. Greenleaf identified ten principles in one of his essays, The Servant As Leader, all of which can apply directly to how leaders help generate a stakeholder-centric culture and create lasting enterprise value:

  • Listening – being receptive, and understanding stakeholder needs
  • Empathy – accepting and recognizing stakeholders as people
  • Healing – being a force for transformation and integration
  • Awareness – helping create open and personal self-awareness
  • Persuasion – building consensus rather than forcing decisions by coercing others
  • Conceptualization – ability to both manage, and look beyond, the day-to-day
  • Foresight – understand lessons learned, present realities, and view the future
  • Stewardship – all stakeholders hold the enterprise in trust for the greater good
  • Commitment to the Growth of People – intrinsic value beyond basic contributions
  • Building Community – shaping and reinforcing relationships within the enterprise

If these ten principles seem like they would be applicable to stakeholder-centricity in operations and experiences, and humanistic approaches for building relationships and value for any enterprise, it’s not an accident. Today, though many leaders still believe in, and practice, a paradigm which depends on controlled communication and power rather than mutually beneficial agreements, Greenleaf strongly believed otherwise. His ‘best test’ for any enterprise effectiveness was to ask how leaders could serve people, help them grow as individuals, become more autonomous, healthier, wiser, and freer, and, themselves, become servants. Recognize that this can apply to any function, or any level, within an organization.

Are Employees and Customers in Sync?

For example, service managers and representatives, salespeople, and other employees are often out of sync with customers in terms of perceived value of services, products, and features. One way to uncover just how misaligned employees are with customers is to ‘mirror’ customer surveys. We do this by asking representatives from the organization to answer questions posed to customers as they believe the customers themselves would answer them. Conducting this kind of research will quickly uncover the gaps in perception and help highlight the need for change. This is closely related to one of the key perceptual gaps identified in the ServQual Model, i.e. between employees and customers. It’s a gap often shaped by leadership, and the culture they help form or perpetuate.

Here’s a personal story to illustrate what I mean. I’ve sat in the client viewing room with managers and executives during focus groups involving customers talking about the value received and relationships with specific vendors. When these managers and executives heard the negative things customers were saying about them, their employees, and their business, I’ve experienced something close to armed insurrection break out behind the glass. The managers and executives refused to believe what they were hearing, but the fact that they didn’t understand what the customer experienced, i.e. the customer’s memory, was the real lesson. They were in denial, and they were very much mistaken. They didn’t get that what matters to the customer is the emotional, relationship side of the value equation.

From my perspective, this inability to deal with customers’ reality is not so much a failure on the managers’ and executives’ parts as it is a failure of leadership to drive the importance of stakeholder experience through the enterprise. Leaders may be focused on driving stakeholder satisfaction and engagement, but that’s no longer enough to build and sustain experience value for customers and employees.

So, a key and fundamental question needs to be asked, “Who in the organization doesn’t own the relationship with the customer, either directly or indirectly?” Recalling the work of W. Edwards Deming, he believed that everyone in the organization is “either serving the customer or supporting someone who does.” This means that, driven by leadership and reinforced by culture, the ideal of employee and customer experience needs to permeate the entire enterprise, from the board room to the mail room.


  1. Michael, do you also address the role of process in your book? VoC and VoE are important; the same holds true for VoP in my eyes. Process can be bad/broken in spite of the two other parts appearing OK. What do you think?


  2. Thomas –

    Thanks for your comment and question. Culture and values, of course, help shape the parameters of process and day-day operations; and leaders have a good deal of influence here. Once set (or revised), process and employee experience/behavior should be a positive reflection of the culture.

    Process effectiveness, especially where employee and customer experience are concerned, should be monitored and evaluated on a fairly routine basis. Why? Because it’s often where the employee experience begins to decay, and also where the customer experience begins to sub-optimize. This contributes to the perceptual misalignment we often see between employees and customers. And, yes, this aspect of employee ambassadorship is well-covered in my forthcoming book.

    Though relatively few in number, there are companies where all of this seems to come together quite well. Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Southwest Airlines, and USAA come immediately to mind. However, one company I’ve worked with may be the most effective of all: Baptist Health Care, based in Pensacola, FL For close to two decades, they’ve been focused on experience optimization for all stakeholders – patients, their families, employees, etc. For Baptist, engagement represents table-stakes. Far above engagement, emotionally-driven trust and perceived value are what has helped create an exceptional healthcare culture, industry complexities notwithstanding.


  3. The concept of servant leadership revolves around servant first before on becomes a leader.Throughout the world, governments and corporations have yielded fine examples of visionary leaders, charismatic leaders and transformational leaders. Many among us are also familiar with managers who are inclined towards an authoritarian or participative leadership style at our workplace. However, servant-leadership does not seem to be a “mainstream” leadership approach in this age of aspiring super-leaders.
    Servant-leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and organizations .Servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. Servant-leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment. It is not uncommon for many servant leaders to become leaders simply, because people respect them for always putting other people’s interests first.
    “The servant-leader is servant first.It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first(Robert Greenleaf, former Chairman of AT& T)then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. Example of servant leaders are Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa. We need servant leaders to make the world a better place.


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here