Oswald Letter

Focus on Your Employees’ Needs Before Your Own

by Dan Oswald

On Sunday, I heard someone speak about servant leadership. I was struck by how appropriate it was that he chose that topic the day before we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King, a man who dedicated his life to civil rights, once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

What are you doing for others? Those of us in leadership positions likely don’t stop and ask ourselves that question nearly enough—if ever. We think about the task at hand. We think about the goals we’ve set. We think about delivering the financial results expected of us. But do we really stop and consider what it is we are doing for others?

One of the points of the speaker who had chosen servant leadership was that success is found in helping others achieve their goals. Stop and think about that for a moment. Success is found in helping others achieve their goals.

I think we’d all agree that if we apply that premise to our shareholders, investors, or owners, it is true. If a shareholder’s goal is to make money on his investment, then he would consider us successful if we returned him a profit—assuming it was done in a legal and ethical way. That’s an easy one, but what about other stakeholders? Does the concept apply to all stakeholders in a company?

Let’s consider our customers for a moment. If you apply this concept to your customers, I believe it’s inevitably true. If you can help your customers achieve their goals, you will be successful. Look at what a wonderful job Amazon does making shopping easy and hassle-free and the success it has achieved. Or look at the friendly experience Southwest Airlines provides to its customers—travelers who are often faced with stressful circumstances—and how it has allowed the company to flourish.

I think it’s fair to say, companies that have helped their customers achieve their goals are successful. It’s difficult (impossible?) to think of a company that went out of business despite truly helping its customers succeed.

OK, what about employees? If we help our employees achieve their goals, does it result in our success? You might think it depends on how we define success. Certainly, if we consider helping others attain their goals, then if we help our employees achieve theirs, we’ve been successful. But what about the other goals we have? Does helping our employees achieve their goals necessarily allow us to attain ours?

I think it does. When asked what motivates them at work, employees consistently list the following as the top motivators:

  • Challenging work;
  • Recognition;
  • Employee involvement
  • Job security; and
  • Compensation.

If that is what our employees desire, then providing them with a fair, secure workplace where they have challenging work and where they are active contributors, are recognized for their contributions, and are compensated fairly should allow them to meet many of their goals.

Is this something a leader can provide? Certainly. By helping our employees meet these workplace goals, we could consider it a success. But the success doesn’t stop with the individual. If you can provide a workplace where people have challenging, relevant, and meaningful work and are recognized and rewarded appropriately for their contributions, not only will the individual employees meet their goals, but it’s very likely that you will have a successful organization as well. When your employees succeed, your organization succeeds, and you succeed. All by helping others meet their goals.

It shouldn’t go without saying that if an individual’s goals are inconsistent with the goals of the organization or his goals can’t be met while working for a particular company, that needs to be identified as well. There are times when people have meaningful and admirable goals that can’t be met while working for your organization. It doesn’t mean you can’t help them realize their dreams, but you must do so by helping them leave the company. That, too, can be a success for all.

As a business leader, you’re looking for organizational success. You’re looking to fulfill your company’s mission. If you have people who find working toward that mission fulfilling and rewarding and you provide them with the right environment where they can succeed, without ever considering yourself or your goals, you will be successful. As a leader, if you focus on the needs of others first, the rest will take care of itself. It just works out that way.