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Great Leaders Are About 'We,' not 'Me'

Great Leaders Are About 'We,' not 'Me'

Why Darden Restaurants seeks selfless leaders

Great Place to Work sponsors a group called the Executive Strategy Network (ESN), to provide recognized best companies with opportunities to learn from each other. The group recently gathered at the home office of Darden Restaurants to observe and learn from the nation’s 25th largest employer, which is also one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America

Darden’s Commitment to Internal Mobility

Executives from Darden, including CEO Clarence Otis, Jr. openly shared many of the organization’s best practices. I was particularly struck by Darden’s commitment to developing its own. Ninety-nine percent of those who fill leadership positions at levels above front-line supervisor are promoted from within. This parallels the promotional practices of some other best companies, including Publix, as I highlighted in an earlier blog post.

Darden creates a great workplace through a focus on people Why would best companies take this approach? Won’t a heavy emphasis on internal candidates cause an organization to become stale or myopic? On the contrary, investing in developing your best people, expanding their knowledge base and shoring up their skills pays off handsomely. Darden’s workforce metrics bear this out: Overall employee retention is 20 points above the industry average and manager intent to stay is three times the industry benchmark.

Selfless Individuals Make Great Leaders

When asked what Darden seeks in a leader, Clarence Otis responded, “We look for people who are selfless. They must possess a compelling desire to be of service. Our leaders are coaches and teachers to their staff.” Selfless, he explained, simply means consistently displaying a focus on others instead of one’s self. This theme was echoed by various Darden executives throughout our meeting. My very favorite quote came from Dave George, President of Olive Garden, who said, “There’s no limit to what can be accomplished it you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Imagine, for a moment, what workplaces would be like if all leaders were other-focused. Climbing the corporate ladder would be secondary to developing one’s team. Driving to achieve a maximum personal incentive bonus would be far less important than ensuring that all of one’s staff were recognized and appropriately rewarded. Leaders would do the right thing for their employees, irrespective of the impact on themselves. Employee engagement survey vendors would likely be out of business, because high engagement would be the norm in every organization.

Perhaps it’s easy to dismiss Darden’s emphasis on selflessness, given the company’s business. The restaurant experience revolves around delighting customers and ensuring that they return. Yet, every business has customers of some kind. Don’t we all want to deliver service that delights the customer, even if that customer is another business versus a consumer? Kindness, consideration and caring are contagious. Happy employees, led by attentive and selfless leaders are much more likely to create an experience that results in happy customers. Selflessness should be a key leadership competency in every organization.

Developing Selfless Leaders

If selflessness is indeed a desired trait, how can an organization train its leaders to be selfless? Although there are no courses in selflessness, there is a way to instill it in others. Selflessness can be modeled and when it is modeled by the organization’s most senior leaders, it is much more likely to permeate all levels of leadership.

In addition to behavior modeling, selflessness can be acknowledged and rewarded. Many people are naturally other-focused and they are easy to spot. These are the individuals who are “givers,” always demonstrating a caring attitude toward others. Typically without fanfare, they put others’ interests ahead of their own. They are not “all about me,” rather they are “all about we.” Organizations can take intentional steps to recognize these individuals and promote the importance of their actions.

Perhaps one day, selflessness will be the core competency that binds all who lead other people. Until then, we can continue to learn from companies like Darden Restaurants and apply the lessons within our own organizations.

What stories do you have to share that illustrate the power of selfless leadership?