“What would you have done in my place?” John Heller asked the audience of HR-experts, managers & academics. “I became CEO of Argenta in 2008. The bank was doing ok, although the financial crisis posed serious threats. Argenta had a very strong culture: no nonsense, honest, extremely sober, a bit conservative. Just like its founder, who managed the bank up till my appointment in a directive way. He even decided on the purchase of pencils. The turnover in the management team was huge.” He repeated his question: “What would you have done? I’m lost here.”
“Giving the example”, someone said, after a long silence. “Yes, but which example?” “Listening”, tried another participant. “OK, but to whom?” It was difficult to get beyond the cliches in leadership thinking. And the contributions of the other speakers in the symposium about servant leadership didn’t help much. Heller challenged them directly. “I’m not a servant leader” looking Bob Liden from the University of Chicago in the eye.
Liden framed servant leadership academically. Servant leadership has 7 components: conceptual expertise, helping followers to grow, emotional healing, creating value for the community, putting followers first, empowering and behaving ethically. Servant leadership puts followers first. Lidens & other research shows significant positive effects of servant leadership, even in comparison with transformational and LMX leadership models. But how to develop it? How to implement it?
“And I didn’t change the structure of Argenta,” Heller continued, refering to the contribution of Seth Maenen from Flanders Synergy. Maenen made a convincing plea for the importance of structure in organisations. “When you have a functionally divided and hierarchical organisation, leaders monopolize their influence. They have to. It’s expected from them. There’s no room for servant leadership if people are structurally powerless.”
“I invested a lot in dialogue, but result is important for me,” countered Heller the leadership recipee of Leon Vliegen, consultant-coach and the third speaker. His contribution was clear on explaining which competencies leaders need to have, but vague on the how of leadership in a concrete context.
So how did Heller step in the shoes of a dominant boss of a healthy, value driven company?
“I built a team, of my direct reports, and of the larger group of senior managers. We made together a profile of our team, our leadership brand. Only three years later, members of my team started to give each other feedback on their leadership behavior. Three years!” A strong message, and Heller had some for more for the attentive audience:
“I began reorganizing at the top. I hate companies who start with their middle managers or lock people up in HR structures. I began with 10 people in my team, we’re now at 7 and I want to end with 5. More I can’t handle.”
“We’re very careful in selection. Cultural fit is the most important. It takes time to assess that. And I spend a lot of time with young recruits. I take them on the road with me for a day and I organize 10 times a year a lunch with newcomers.”
“We invest a lot in HR. We call it now “organisation and talent”. I see in Belgium a lot of HR that serves the employer. It should serve talent and people. Binding people to our company and developing their talent is a matter of survival today! I have to bind people to me.”
“Argenta has a strong internal drive. I’m opening that up. I spend a lot of time at the borders of the company.”
Heller proved the first law of shared leadership: “Organizations without bosses need a wise CEO”. His story is certainly one to follow and was the perfect ending of the symposium about the inspiring idea of servant leadership.