"This project ha s been a great success mostly because of your efforts," the appreciative boss praised the enthusiastic employee. After six months of hard work and dedication, a new capability had been delivered to the organization that provided them with a significant competitive advantage. The boss was happy, the employee was happy and received a promotion soon after. This first phase had been delivered more rapidly than anyone had imagined. More work remained to be done, but it seemed that a solid foundation had been laid.

Flash forward two years.

"The project" was now a train wreck. The employee who had been promoted had been fired. And the once happy boss was worried about his own job as he was preparing a report to the CEO to explain how to counter a serious jump in costs and downturn in revenues.

What happened in this true story? How did something that appeared to be a home run, quickly turn into such a disaster?

Being a Servant vs. Good Service

Our business culture often puts a great deal of emphasis on providing a "great service experience." But what is often missed in this is that what might feel great to a customer, co-worker or boss in the short-term, can often be short-sighted or even self-serving.

Someone may provide a great service experience by taking shortcuts, getting things done faster than expected, delivering below the expected cost, or providing a quick fix to a complicated problem. And, in some cases, those may be just what is needed. But if that individual focused only on short-term benefits, then what appears to be great service may translate into a great big problem.

In the opening example, the CEO had a vision for a new product that would revolutionize their business. The bright young employee was able to quickly convert that vision into a process and a set of technologies that delivered on a large portion of the CEO's vision. But the employee had not taken the time to truly understand the long-term vision and to define a solid roadmap. As a result, in subsequent phases, the needs of the project quickly outpaced the framework that the employee had established. New changes to the process required an inordinate investment of resources, with each round of changes costing more than the last. Customers who had been brought onto the new product platform complained of the numerous delays and quality issues that they experienced. To retain these valuable customers, the company had to provide discounts that made them unprofitable. And the most costly problem - when the employee left, because he had isolated himself from colleagues, virtually all of the knowledge was lost.

Eventually, the entire project had to be scrapped and re-launched - at an enormous expense to the company.

What is a Servant?

The word "servant" isn't very popular in our culture these days.

We all want to be independent, self-sufficient, or to become a manager. Being a servant sounds like a humbling position, doing only what you are told to do. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, becoming a servant is a much more powerful, proactive and valuable place to be than someone who just provides great service. But it is also much more difficult.

A servant, at least a good one, looks at the big picture. They "push back" when they know the person they are serving is making a bad decision - even if it may look good in the short-term. They insist on aligning actions with values, and they focus on the difficult daily work of moving a team towards a vision. A servant often finds themselves in an uncomfortable position, having to share news that it would be far easier to sweep under the rug. And a servant recognizes that they are pursuing a vision that is bigger than themselves, so they collaborate with others to share their knowledge - at the risk of working themselves out of a job. They often have to stand between conflicting interests and objectively serve the needs of both.

So why strive to become a servant? Because of another trend that is on the rise in our culture today - the desire to serve a bigger purpose. A servant's highest priority is not job security, a fast rise to management, or accumulating more stuff. A servant is interested in the success of a team, and the accomplishment of more than what can be measured with money. They have a horizon that is much longer than just the next raise - they are focused on life-long relationships and on a lasting legacy.

Servants leave their businesses, colleagues, customers and vendors better than they were before.

What is interesting, though, is that they not only achieve these altruistic goals - they also end up with better job security and more responsibility than their more self-centered counterparts. In our story above, the self-centered employee achieved some short-term benefit, but left relationships, projects and their career potential in ruins. The organization hired another person to replace him - and this replacement had the attitude of a servant. They had a much more difficult two years than the self-centered employee, but ultimately delivered a project that met the needs of the entire team. That individual has now become a reliable part of the leadership for that organization.

Growing from Self-Serving into a Servant

Becoming a servant is not something that you do - it is who you are. If a desire to live as a servant is not already there, then the only way to become a servant is through the hard work of rebuilding your identity. If the foundation is there, but the results don’t seem to be coming, then it may be more a matter of fine-tuning. In either event, a great place to start is the book Give and Take (LinkedIn Site, Amazon book).

Understanding your values as an individual and living those out in your work life is the start of becoming a servant. A few simple things to keep in mind:

Live out the golden rule - think about how you would want others to treat you, and treat them that way
Seek to serve - ask yourself what a project or another person needs in order to experience success, and don't wait for someone to assign that task to you - take it on yourself

Look for a safe place to be a servant. Here are some of the warning signs that you may be working for an organization that will turn servants into doormats:

Projects start strong, but consistently sputter out
Knowledge is held tightly by individuals concerned about job security
There is little sense of collaboration with colleagues, management, customers or partners (as a quick check - take a look at your statement of vision or mission to see what it might say about relationships and collaboration)
Vendors aren't paid on time (or sometimes aren't paid at all)

How About You?

What are your experiences with being a servant versus just providing good service? What practical tips do you practice to be a servant? Is there anyone whose servant attitude you admire? Take a moment to thank them.