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Servant Leadership Lessons and Growth: Observations from a CHRO

Today’s post comes to us from the newest member of The Workforce Institute at UKG advisory board, Alex Smith. Alex serves as the chief human resources officer (CHRO) for the City of Memphis, Tennessee. She is a working mother of two daughters, and she has a passion for servant leadership and helping the community.

Named an HRO Today magazine CHRO of the Year in 2020, Alex has been highly praised for positioning the City of Memphis as a 21st-century model for city governments. We look forward to Alex’s firsthand, real-time insights from an HR practitioner in the public sector. Her first contribution for The Workforce Institute is a two-part series on servant leadership.

Since 2016, I have served as the CHRO for the City of Memphis — a municipality with nearly 8,000 employees, that has over $1 billion in revenue, and is focused on delivering essential city services to the citizens of Memphis, Tennessee.

I didn’t start my career in the public sector. I divinely found my way there 11 years ago, while searching for an opportunity to bring my family together and continue my career. That said, as a little girl growing up in Gary, Indiana, and the granddaughter of a three-term city councilman, I was born in a home that valued public service and that cultivated my heart to serve. However, over the past 20 years of working in the private and public sectors, I have learned that servant leadership is more than working on a soup line or reading to children. Servant leadership is a mindset and lifestyle.

One afternoon, while reading Ken Blanchard’s and Randy Conley’s book, “Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust,” I had a major aha moment. Servant leadership has more to do with how you approach your work and others in your organization (and even family) and less to do with actual physical service.

This was pivotal for me, and it broadened my thinking about looking at servant leadership as a mindset and leadership philosophy to get the best results for any organization. I am also a working mom of two beautiful girls, and, as I started to apply the principles of servant leadership, I found they can work at home too. I think Blanchard agrees with me.

What is Servant Leadership?

What does servant leadership entail, and why should you care about it? As Blanchard explains, “Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you — you work for them.”

This means that servant leadership is about helping people win. Period. Doing what it takes to make sure others around you are successful. How do we make this shift in this politically driven world, surrounded by office politics and individuals wanting to maintain their personal brands? And should we even make this shift?

First, you should care about building a servant leadership culture because aspiring to it will lead to more collaboration and success, especially in a crisis. We saw this phenomenon with our City of Memphis HR team during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic started, our health department, like others across the country, was over-tasked with contact tracing. With our organization comprising more than 70% essential workers, I knew we could not afford to have whole departments quarantined or isolated due to COVID-19.

So, I asked one of my high-potential employees if she would lead contact tracing for our organization. She was a stellar leader, and, although she knew nothing about infectious disease or contact tracing, she was willing to step up and lead the team. In 30 days, she met with the health department, received training, and identified 50 other employees in and outside HR across our organization to help start this new team.

What happened next was magical: the team provided contact tracing for thousands of our employees, helping us to stop the spread and provide more education and support. It also gave our internal HR team a greater sense of purpose and contribution, helping ensure business continuity for our community.

This is just one example of success, but creating that culture of servant leadership creates an opportunity for you to uniquely have your best people thinking about and solving your toughest problems. This also helps with overall employee development of new skills and employee engagement, which can certainly drive retention.

Next time, I’ll dive deeper into the world of servant leadership and how it can help you and your team succeed — not just at work but also at home.

Share your insights!

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