Worker Voice Summit Re-cap + 5 Things to Do NOW to Operate as a Servant Leader

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of attending the Worker Voice Summit, hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House. The core intent of the summit, ensuring that workers have a voice in the workplace, deeply resonated with what I have made my personal and professional mission for the past several years and I was delighted to see such emphasis put on this important topic at the national level by the administration, as well as stakeholders from all sectors. I’d like to share my perspective on what resonated with me the most, namely the need for managers and leaders of organizations to develop an inclusive mindset and recognize that treating people fairly and giving them the opportunity to shape their destiny is good for all parties involved.

A Brief Re-cap:

There were multiple facets to the dialogue about what it takes to elevate the voice of the workers in the workplace, including the employees’ right to organize, and success stories related to that, and alternate ways for employees to ensure their voice is heard. As the President put it, this was the beginning of the process, not the end and I am confident that given the caliber of people involved, there will be healthy debate and dialogue about various aspects of this important topic. For more on the Worker Voice Summit, visit

The Town Hall Question I Was Itching to Answer:

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As President Obama said simply and eloquently, "The best, most effective employers are the ones who are actively soliciting worker input." This rings so true for me, particularly because I have personally experienced it on multiple occasions in my career. You can read more about one of my experiences where we were able to turn the results and the morale of an organization around completely, by simply empowering employees to have a voice and use their voice to improve the business and working conditions here.  I know of multiple examples of how this has been done effectively at both union and non-union manufacturing plants with cooperation from all parties involved.

The President spoke of employee engagement being the differentiator that caused the Japanese to “clean Detroit’s clock” for years and he asked the companies that were represented who had figured out how to create a culture of engagement the following questions:

1.  What allowed you to make the cultural shift?  

2.  Why employers of goodwill might be hesitant to provide more voice to workers and what are of the ways we can breakdown those barriers and make employers less defensive or worried about it?

My Answer:

My experience has been that the leader is always the greatest barrier and bottleneck.  Transformative Leaders recognize that in order to transform the culture, they must transform themselves first. Creating a culture transformation toward engagement and empowerment must start with the leader recognizing that employee engagement is essential to delivering extraordinary results and accept the accountability for the culture and results of the organization.  Leaders simply must understand the critical role they must play as servant leaders.  Organizations that cultivate this type of leadership mindset can overcome the greatest of challenges, even in the face of uncertainty on exactly how they would go about doing so.

The “how to’s” will vary from one circumstance to another, but when the entire organization is clear and united on what transformation they are out to cause and why it is important, they figure out the how together. This is something I talk about extensively in my new book, The Transformative Leader.

The 3 Reasons Why Most Organizations Do Not Operate this Way:

Most, if not all, leaders that I talk to agree, in principle, with what I have stated above, but most will also say that this is not the culture they have at their workplace. I believe the reasons, which speaks to the President’s second question, are as follows:

1.    There is still a prevalent either/or mentality among top management.  We can either empower people or be serious about delivering results.

2.    In this day and age where many CEO’s are more interested in their quarterly reports and the implications on their immediate reputation or their compensation, many investment decisions are made with a short-term mentality. If the cost and benefits of investing in developing and engaging employees cannot be shown on a spreadsheet that clearly shows the immediate impact, it is likely to get cut, even though it is the very factor that makes everything else work.

3.    There is still a focus on “compliance” vs. “commitment.”  Employers are interested in doing what they can to get their employees to comply and do their job, rather than focusing on what’s possible if they invest in their employees and create the conditions in which the employees develop a sense of ownership and offer up their full commitment.

As leaders, we often have an subconscious or covert entitlement mentality. We believe that people in our organizations owe us their full commitment, when in fact, the truth is that all people owe us is their compliance; and if we want their commitment, we must earn it. This realization causes us to stop blaming people for not being fully engaged, and instead look for and discover ways that we can create an environment in which people freely offer their commitment to go beyond the call of duty.

5 Things to Do NOW to Operate as a Servant Leader:

  • Declare yourself “The One” who is personally responsible for creating an environment in which everyone offers up their commitment. 

  • Make it your business to actively seek out the opinions of your team members on how the results and work conditions can be improved. 

  • Actively demonstrate your commitment to their suggestions by supporting the implementation of those ideas. 

  • Be intentional about committing personalized, unpredictable, and authentic acts of recognition and caring toward your team members. 

  • Encourage your team members to do the same with everyone else by actively role-modeling what you expect of them.