How Serving Others Can Help Make You a Great Leader

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The following is an excerpt from Jeffery Hayzlett’s new book Think Big Act Bigger. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes


Why do I do so much for others? The more I help people, the more it comes back to me in some way—we get ahead by helping others get ahead. Don’t lose sight of that, ever.

Simply put, people serve people, not companies. That’s the key to the undervalued leadership component of likeability: a genuine “servant mentality.” Leaders must be willing at any time to ask anyone they connect to:

  • How can I help you?
  • What can I help you with?
  • What can I do?

We must never let momentum, lack of time, success, ego, or any other excuse keep us from asking those questions. We must be relentlessly thoughtful and aware, always asking, “How am I serving others?”

Sound easy? Then why do so many companies and leaders fail at the simplest of activities: customer service? Why pretend to prefer customers if you can’t take the time to talk to them? Don’t hide behind online submission forms, emails that go nowhere, and endless phone trees that never reach a representative. Why do so many of us find it so hard to remember a birthday, anniversary, or just an opportunity to pay forward a kindness? And what happens when we remember that we forgot? We get angry with ourselves and offer seemingly-heartfelt-but-really-I’m-just-making-an-excuse-for-not-doing-something-so-it’s-about-me-not-you “I’m sorrys.” No one wants to hear that. How do you feel when someone says, “I’m sorry” like that? Do you find it genuine? I find it makes me feel worse. Don’t worry, I get it: You were too busy doing something else to remember me.

Your actions don’t need to be big or expensive to mean much, just thoughtful. I have a business partner from Calgary who, like most Canadians, thinks the world revolves around hockey. He has a teenage son who thinks exactly the same, so I sent them a personalized autographed copy of The Code, a hockey book by Ross Bernstein, whom I happen to know. They were as surprised and grateful as my writer Jim was when I sent his bacon-loving family an unexpected shipment of my favorite slices from Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive: the Promise (and Pitfalls) of Ponies

A Verizon Wireless commercial from 2007 pokes fun at the idea that a pony is the best present a little girl can get. Three teenage girls stand shivering in a backyard after Christmas. Looking toward the back fence, one girl says to the friend whose house it is, “You actually got a pony.” The friend, not looking the least bit like she's living a fantasy, rolls her eyes and jealously eyes the phones her friends got from their parents. Cut to the pony, viciously chewing off the top of a doghouse and angrily neighing and spitting, startling the girls. “Does he bite?” the friends ask. “Yeah,” their friend replies, unamused.

As a cowboy at heart, I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t want a pony; I see promise even in one that bites and spits. As a businessman, I feel the same way. Even when faced with people or situations as figuratively annoying, loud, and unpleasant as that girl’s pony, I might find myself helping, working with, or engaging them because I believe something good might come from it. I know I'm an eternal optimist in thinking this way, but I like being hopeful.

When it comes to people, though, how do you stop yourself from getting taken advantage of with this attitude? You don’t! Well, not completely. It's going to happen. There’s a fine line between generosity and idiocy, for sure. You just have to learn to patrol that line and have people who stop you when you can’t see someone's taking advantage of your generosity. 

By all means, remember to keep your BS meter up for people asking for money for nothing, making promises they can't deliver, who are meandering and directionless, who start conversations that go nowhere, or who “just want to pick your brain” instead of paying for that access and expertise. I have no tolerance for laziness, and there are a lot of users in this world. Takers are going to take.

I prefer to define myself against the takers. I prefer to ask, “What are the consequences of not doing all I can and more?” People want to be around people who give, and there are plenty of opportunities to give back in business, from mentoring to supporting charities with more than just a check to working with students to being an active member of your community. Random acts of kindness are always appreciated, but what you plan to do says even more. That requires thoughtfulness.

To begin, commit to doing the simplest things I do:

  • Email or message me directly, and I will respond as soon as I can.
  • Follow me on Twitter, and I will follow you back.
  • Ask me for something, and I will do it, try, or at least tell you why I can’t.
  • Invite me to something, and I will be grateful, even if I can’t come. Send me bacon, and I will never, ever forget you.

I understand we're all busy, but I find those who at least try to have a servant mentality are the ones I remember and stay in touch with. Pick up the phone and call one of those people right now--you’ll be surprised how happy they are to hear from you. Even in an age when we're so wired and connected, we are surprisingly disconnected from each other. Remedy that. If Matt Preschern, executive vice president and CMO of the multibillion-dollar Indian global IT services company HCL Technologies, can acknowledge every email he gets within 24 hours, what’s your excuse? “Anyone can reach me on my globally enabled phone any time of day, and I enjoy it,” he says. “I am genuinely enthusiastic about serving my team, because my and our success is dependent on them..” My friend Russ Mann, CMO of Nintex, makes a point of going through his LinkedIn and reaching out to reconnect with people he knows in the cities he travels to (even if he hasn’t seen them in years): “It’s amazing how many of them write back and say, ‘I really appreciate your being in touch,’ ” he says. “They now know I'm thinking about them, and I refuse to delegate that. Even if they're not pertinent for my current job, it’s always great to connect and keep the network fresh. People seem to think it's remarkable, but it’s a natural part of my personal workflow.”

Even in the age of social media, it’s remarkable? Wow, that’s how bad most of us are at it.

In the end, I’m a big believer in karma, which is Sanskrit for “action” and usually means our fate is the result of our actions. What it really comes down to is ethics, accountability, and responsibility to something bigger than we are, and to me, there's nothing bigger in business than the people we work with.

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