Starting a business is an emotionally intense experience. It can be exciting, nerve-racking, and incredibly fulfilling, all at the same time. For many entrepreneurs, their desire to start a business is tied to a deep seated passion to help others with their unique service or product. This is why the concept of servant leadership often resonates with many entrepreneurs. Originally developed by Robert Greenleaf, the concept centers around the following leadership traits: Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community. In servant leadership, one is a servant to others first and a leader second. Leadership becomes not about power, but a way to position oneself to better help others.
When I first opened my business, I was consumed by my perfectionism and desire to make it a success. This translated to a laser-like focus on metrics and process—making the calls, generating the leads, closing the sales, hitting our monthly targets. I focused on little else, even my family. The hard work paid off. In less than two years of opening my insurance agency, I had a solid book of business. My staff grew from one to five full-time employees and two part-time telemarketers. As my business grew, I continued the same frenetic pace and expected my employees to do so as well. It was exhausting. I felt overwhelmed. Not only did I feel like my business was running me instead of me running my business, I did not feel the passion I once had and could not quite explain why. I would find myself preoccupied with sales quotas instead of spending time with my family, and I especially hated being a taskmaster in the office.
This prompted some soul-searching on my behalf. I prayed for a couple of months and had an epiphany which led to me to change course. Instead of solely focusing on metrics, I decided to focus on ways to develop and empower my staff. People first. Profits second. I took a leap of faith and trusted that under this new strategy the numbers would take care of themselves. I set up a plan where I could help teach and enhance my staff’s skills and talents. I made sure their duties aligned in ways that would allow them to grow professionally, utilize their personal strengths, and I included them in the process of formulating our goals. Quotas were still important, but so were quarterly trainings, social outings, and taking the time to celebrate our successes.
As a team, we also took into consideration our individual values and looked for ways to support each other. I was blessed by the fact that my staff valued community as much as I did. We were able to create a culture where giving back and serving our community was just as important as hitting our sales goals. We were very involved in chamber events, sponsored various little league teams and served food at the local food bank. We connected with our office neighbors by hosting Annual National Day of Prayer events in the office complex. This positive energy also extended to the way we handled our clients. Taking care of our customers and helping them brought us joy and our clients could tell we were sincere. Referrals and word of mouth became our biggest source of sales because people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. The shift in strategy was a huge success and led to a banner year at our agency. Not only did we hit all our market goals, but we were recognized as one of the top three agencies in the entire state of Texas.
During the past few months, I have found myself revisiting this time of my life quite often. Not out of some sense of nostalgia for simpler times, but because I feel fortunate that I was able to learn the value of servant leadership early on and carry it with me. When I look back, I realize how much I valued and felt rewarded by being able to nurture my employees professionally. I feel reassured by all the positive changes that happened once I embraced my role in setting the example to create a culture that prioritized the people around me—my employees, our clients and our community. I am awed by everything that we accomplished as a team, and by the realization that there was no way I would have ever been able to do it by myself.
There were other unexpected blessings for me as around that time my annual mammogram revealed a few lumps in my left breast which I had biopsied. The results were benign, but it was emotionally taxing since I had a family history of breast cancer. As I was dealing with this and other family issues, I felt very fortunate that I was able to lean on my staff and have the peace of mind that business was fine. It showed me that when you take care of others, God takes care of you.
Entrepreneurship is often mythologized as the individual work of lone geniuses, but nothing is further from the truth. All around me, I see entrepreneurs digging in, being courageous, convicted in their passion and their “why” as they take the leap into entrepreneurship. For some, the stakes could not be higher as the uncertainty brought upon by the pandemic has wrought havoc on our jobs, health, and almost every aspect of our lives. However, it has also highlighted the importance of building trust, relationships, support, and community. If there was ever a time to heed the principles of servant leadership, it is now. After all, we are all in this together.
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Philippians 2:23 NLT