A culture of servant leadership

Jan 29, 2023

No one is “above” the work of others, and developing staff this way ensures succession within the firm will carry the values of the firm for years to come.

What actually defines a company’s culture? Is it the values or goals of a firm, the work environment, or is it simply a combination of written policies and procedures? These are the actual definitions from internet searches and articles I found. But, if you simply ask your staff about the culture of your firm, the common response will come down to the people. 

It is about the relationships. It is about interactions with leaders and the teamwork within the company. Sure, the values of the firm may drive these a bit, but it really comes down to how leaders in the firm live out those values and develop staff according to those values. I recently asked some staff to define our culture and the resounding response I received was that it's a collaborative atmosphere where everyone is willing to help, regardless of position or title.

This type of culture starts with leadership and taking a servant-leader approach. This is what drew me to the firm. Principals who were plugged into the work, staff who were willing to work across discipline lines, and everyone always willing to go out of their way to help. PGA was a much smaller firm then and that culture was somewhat easier to achieve. I’m proud to say that, even with the growth of the firm, our principals are still active in the day-to-day work, workload is shared between offices, and most importantly, everyone works together to meet deadlines. We’ve partly been successful in this area because we have expanded leadership with our growth and have remained relatively flat in organizational structure.

I have not taken any formal classes on servant leadership, but I have learned a great deal from the servant-leaders I have served under – and with – in my career. These are folks who have consistently put the team in front of personal accolades, who are often the first in the door or last out the door, who consistently offer assistance to staff on any task – regardless of perceived importance – who continuously fulfill nontraditional roles and wear multiple hats, who listen and engage with staff, and most importantly celebrate in the wins and learn from the losses.

Actions speak louder than words – particularly for young professionals looking for examples to follow. Leaders have to be seen setting the tone for firm expectations. Leaders cannot simply say the things they expect, they have to live and demonstrate it themselves. If leaders preaching culture is just lip service, your staff will figure that out eventually.

Let me share some specific examples that promote our culture of servant leadership:

  • Teamwork. No one enjoys an unexpected all-nighter at work, but inevitably they happen. A client deadline gets advanced and the only way to make it happen is to call for all-hands-on-deck. Instead of complaints about why or how it happened, teamwork always outshines the frustration. Some of my better memories are the late nights, working with staff on getting things out the door, with everyone pitching in. True leaders roll up their sleeves and participate when these deadlines hit. Even if their contributions largely entail encouragement and oversight, simply being a part of the last-minute chaos develops deep trust and long-lasting relationships in an organization.
  • Celebration. Taking time to appreciate the wins and recognizing the efforts and support of the team is invaluable to maintaining morale. Our firm excels in so many ways in this area – from simple shout-outs through Teams, to appreciation lunches, and most importantly giving back through company events like weekend getaways. Breaking bread and singing karaoke (or at least listening to others try) build these relationships that endure for entire careers. “Work hard, play hard” is a standard cliché we live by, but it is absolutely spot on, from the top of the organization to the college interns. Firms and leaders have to dedicate time and resources to make this happen. What may appear as an added expense or time away from productivity is really an investment in the stability and growth of the firm.
  • Wearing multiple hats. In a growing firm, leaders have to play many roles. There is a constant effort of our managers and leaders to build out our groups, develop staff, and become more efficient in our work. And while it is important to look inward at the company, looking outward to our clients is paramount. Leaders must know and anticipate their clients’ needs and work to support them where necessary. An example and testament to servant leadership is our firm president dedicating part of his week to serve our primary client in a staff augmentation role. When other firms might ask, “How could he find the time to do that?” The question he posed was, “How could I not find the time to help them?” Most of our staff wear multiple hats. PMs are also lead engineers, marketing staff provide public engagement support, and we even have a project engineer flying drones for us (with a commercial license). Doing these things humbly, to serve our clients, to serve one another, makes us all succeed together.

As our firm has grown, maintaining the small firm feel has been a priority. It was a topic of conversation at our latest strategic planning meeting to ensure we never lose focus. This focus means developing and promoting staff with the expectations of being servant leaders. No one is “above” the work of others. Developing staff this way ensures succession within the firm will carry the values of the firm for years to come, even if leaders move on or retire.  

Joseph Lauk, PE, is a vice president and principal at Patel, Greene & Associates, LLC. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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