Servant Leadership: A Lesson in Building Relationships

Christina Dusenberry ·

If you’ve heard of servant leadership, you know that it’s a timeless concept: a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, helping build better organizations and creating a kinder world. What does being a servant leader mean to me?

As a servant leader, my first duty is to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being addressed. In my role as a strategic leader for our offices across New York and North Carolina, I manage a leadership team that works with jobseekers, employers and community partners to develop large-scale employment and training initiatives, serving more than 70,000 jobseekers annually. That means I’m constantly looking out for not only my team’s best interests, but those of the clients and communities we serve.

The way I measure my success as a leader is by regularly asking myself these four questions:

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Speaking of building relationships, I’d like to share a defining moment in my career a several years ago when I faced adversity while acquiring additional business. A very important client asked us to step in by operating a career center after the previous provider had committed fraud. Starting from square one would be putting it lightly! It took a lot of time, energy and persistence to build trust and reestablish strong working relationships where there was historically a lot of political tension, and unsuccessful benchmarks and goals. Our client needed to meet with a local councilwoman who was requesting a local, yet inexperienced organization to take over operations of the center.

Looking back, we faced astounding negativity and skepticism from the start. There were verbal beatings, particularly from someone who was convinced that where our headquarters were located, despite my deep roots in the city, would not allow me to be successful in turning the center around.

What made me continue to fight when I could’ve thrown up my hands and pursued other opportunities? We “stayed at the table” because our client needed us, and because of my overwhelming conviction that our company was needed to ethically expand resources and properly serve the community. If you’re wondering if we were able to rebuild the career center, the answer is yes, and it wasn’t without a fight! We were able to convince the councilwoman of our successful track record and share our metrics that proved we were capable, although that is not what changed her mind. What ultimately changed her mind was my personal promise that we would help her constituents. The point of difference for my team was simple. We care. We cared then and we care today.

By embedding our customer-centric culture into our team, the client realized that we would be personally committed to working with them and the people in the community. In the end, they said that they appreciated our tolerance in letting them vent their grief over the previous provider that had failed them. That experience was such an important lesson in humility for me and for my team about how to be good servant leaders. It forced us to stay the course and figure out different ways to communicate while demonstrating our experience and vision. The biggest reason we earned their trust was because we were good listeners. It’s such a basic tenet of communication, yet we sometimes forget it amid the rush of deadlines and commitments.

In the end, what matters most are our relationships and the way we treat people. I strongly believe that our servant leadership-inspired values of Show Up, Smile and Support go beyond work, centering us as people, regardless of the situation, regardless of position. We must focus on communication, connections and culture … all crucial in building healthy long-term relationships, both in and outside of the business world.