To spark innovation, the master becomes the servant

How may he be of service: Mitch Maiman (second from left), Innovate LI's 2019 Master of Innovation, is a true servant to the needs of his staff -- the hallmark of an effective leader, according to Maiman.

“Servant management” leadership techniques are not new.

This leadership concept, founded in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, is broadly based on a philosophy that says the manager’s role is to serve the staff. The manager becomes an enabler for the staff, maximizing their operational performance and developing higher skills and capabilities.

Skip Prichard, president and CEO of the global Online Computer Library Center, does a wonderful job succinctly defining the qualities of a servant leader. On his Leadership Insights website, he identifies nine characteristics: A servant leader values diverse opinions, cultivates a culture of trust, develops other leaders, helps people with life issues, encourages team members, sells instead of tells, thinks of others first, thinks long-term and acts with humility.

As a practitioner of these principles, I’ve seen how this management approach can be extremely effective. These practices have a powerful effect on the staff and, in turn, the entire organization.

The whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. As such, creation of a high-performance team is dependent on the work of outstanding individuals. It’s the leader’s job to help build a team with confident, self-assured and empowered staff.

Mitch Maiman: Serving for the win.

For this to happen, the leader needs to be a trusted mentor to staff members. This happens by creating an environment where others are encouraged to express opinions and take risks.

Staff members also need to feel safe in reaching out to leaders, knowing that their opinions will be heard and respected.

Leaders need to express empathy to their staff to create a safe environment for growth and exploration. Understanding the life situations of the staff, their motivations and personal aspirations, supports empathy.

Leaders employing these methods also need to do a gut check on themselves. They need to keep their ego in place and recognize that they may not always have the best ideas. And to help the staff embrace new ideas, it’s always more useful to convince, rather than force.

I have found servant-management techniques to be very effective in developing a highly motivated team of next-generation leaders. I’ve watched individuals grow from being anxious about expressing opinions or taking risks to showing great self-confidence.

By facilitating and supporting staff members willing to step out of the box, team members have learned to take individual initiative. And by selling my own ideas to team members, rather than dictating solutions, new ideas have been embraced by the staff – and often morphed into even better ideas.

It’s very satisfying that many of our staff members have advanced into senior-management and project-leadership roles. I take pleasure and pride in seeing those who were on my teams advance in their careers. A leader benefits from this kind of staff development.

A while ago, in a prior position at another product-development organization, I needed to engage a team to solve a cultural issue. I had the authority to force individuals to engage, but instead I went to each person and convinced him or her to participate on a voluntary basis, with no repercussions for declining.

Soft serve: The ice cream man shakes it up.

Because I’d built a reputation of trust, I had no difficulty finding volunteers. I also offered an incentive – I would make ice cream (not buy ice cream, make it) for everyone who helped out.

Team members were able to openly express their opinions and drive solutions. An array of ideas was implemented, with solutions migrating throughout the organization. After about three months, we canvased the staff and found a measurable, favorable impact on the corporate culture. And I made several gallons of ice cream, and brought them in to celebrate.

Several years later, long after leaving that company, I returned for a meeting. Walking the familiar halls, I was introduced to several new individuals I’d never met before – but when they heard my name, they knew me as “the guy who made the ice cream.”

As a servant leader, this was incredibly rewarding – a final bit of proof that the right management techniques can have a long-lasting impact. Now that is a worthwhile legacy.

Mitch Maiman is the founder and president of Hauppauge-based product-design company Intelligent Product Solutions, a subsidiary of Florida-based Forward Industries, and Innovate Long Island’s 2019 Master of Innovation.