Effective Solutions Through Partnership

Why Servant Leadership works in the Digital Services world

Digital Transformation, Employee Engagement, General Life/Work, Information Technology, IT Modernization, KAI Partners, Managing/Leadership, Sacramento, Servant Leadership, Team Building, Technology

By Catherine Kendall, PMP

Throughout my career, I have worked for some incredible individuals at esteemed consulting and technology companies. I am fortunate to have witnessed brilliance in action, incredible creativity, and professional excellence.

I have also witnessed behaviors that I promised myself I would never adopt or condone. Such behaviors include bullying, intimidation, fear mongering, public humiliation, sabotage, and my personal favorite, elitism (for example: “I have a manager title, so therefore I am better, smarter, faster”).

At the assortment of companies where I worked during my career, this is the feedback I consistently received: “You may be more suited for change management since you are so sensitive,” followed by, “You’re too touchy feely,” and, “You will never be an executive because you are too sensitive. Maybe an HR job is better for you,” and finally, “You care too much about people and how they feel. You need to stop that.”

Guess what? I became an executive and I am still a sensitive person.

I figured it out fairly early in my career that I am a servant leader and although this was not a leadership category I was aware of during the tender ages of 25 – 35, I always knew that I believed in building people up and putting their needs before mine. I knew if I took care of my team members and had their backs, they would deliver on their commitments. I believe in service to others, compassion, and kindness. Yet to many of my peers and managers, this kindness made me weak.

Fast forward 10 years later, I keep reading blogs about servant leadership as if it is some new kind of leadership style. It is often paired with digital services—why is that?

Technology has pivoted towards caring about customer behavior, thoughts, and actions. Technology is about the customer experience, not just the customer transaction.

The experience has everything to do with feeling and yet, for over 20 years, I was told feelings have no place in the corporate world of technology.

I am happy to say that I stuck to my own principles and continue to behave in a kind manner towards others. I would like to argue that I did it because I am incredibly principled, but if I am being perfectly honest, the few times I tried to be really tough, I felt sick to my stomach for a long period of time and then the guilt caused by the cognitive dissonance was overwhelming and incapacitating.

Being kind to others and behaving as a servant leader does not make a person weak. Abusing employees, taunting them, condescending on them, bullying them—do people really believe leadership is equivalent to being mean?

I am pleased to see the changing of the tides. While I do not believe the days of bullying and intimidating leaders are a thing of the past, what I do see is a growing belief not to mistake kindness for weakness.

About the Author: Catherine has 20 years of experience in managing large scale information technology systems integration projects. Before joining KAI Partners as the Service Delivery Director, Catherine was the Chief Information Officer for the California Department of Conservation. Prior to that, Catherine worked for IBM as a delivery Project Executive where she served predominantly public sector clients in both California and New York. Catherine started her career as a programmer at Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) in San Francisco and a process engineer designer and test lead at Deloitte Consulting in Los Angeles. She has her doctorate in education from Drexel University and she has an MBA and a B.S. from the University of California at Davis. Catherine is an animal rescue volunteer and does community service with the elderly. Her hobbies include playing piano, reading non-fiction and macro-economic research, and writing.

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