Servant Leadership

I often reflect upon past experiences that shaped my life for the better. I usually find that my most beneficial learning experiences were also challenging. It’s hard to see the benefits at the time we are going through a learning phase.

One such learning experience was my first real corporate job.  In 2000, back when we connected to the internet using dial-up modems, I took a position as an administrative assistant for UPS.  I was in my early 20s, studying computer programming and looking to start a career in IT.

The job was within the technical architecture department of UPS’s technology headquarters. Lucky for me, the office was just down the road from where I lived in Mahwah NJ. I knew the job wasn’t glamorous, but I thought maybe it could be a stepping stone.

When I started, I was partly embarrassed because most of the other admins were female. My friends would tease me and say I was a secretary. I made photo copies, scheduled meetings, ordered food, and did whatever the managers needed. At one point, they asked me to clean out the cubicle of a woman who left the company. I remember it shocked me to find pairs of shoes in her desk drawers. I doubt cleaning out cubicles was part of my job description, but I performed all my tasks to the best of my ability and with a smile.

The management team I supported at UPS were some of the best managers and leaders I’ve worked with to date. My role enabled me to interact with them often. They mentored me and it wasn’t long before they moved me into a software QA position. I was set on a course for a career in IT, just like I had hoped.

When I look back, the lessons learned during my time as an administrative assistant were invaluable.

Here are 6 things I learned about servant leadership by working as an administrative assistant:

  1. There is no substitute for being well prepared – I often had to prepare for department meetings and different events. Before the monthly department meeting, I would get into the room at least 30 minutes early to set up. I made sure all preparations worked without issue before anyone arrived to the meeting. This may seem trivial, but how often have you seen executives stumble through meetings because they weren’t prepared? Having trouble starting the conference bridge, not having a clear agenda, video problems…etc. All embarrassing flubs and potential career killers.  There is no substitute for being well prepared.
  2. When you’re called upon for help, provide it – Earlier I gave the example of cleaning out the cubicle of a woman who had left the company. When they asked me, I didn’t respond by saying that’s not my job. I put my ego aside and I agreed to the task with a smile. I not only cleaned out the cubicle, I had it sparkling. Sometimes we need to step up and do some dirty work. Leadership means doing whatever it takes to help the team. When I manage projects today and the team is in the trenches of project execution, I will do whatever I can to help. I’d be happy to bring team members coffee if they’d like, and I mean it.
  3. Always treat people with kindness and dignity –  I interacted with all different types of people. From executives to mail room assistants, I learned to treat everyone with kindness and dignity. At the end of the day, people are humans with emotions. You can’t treat them like COG’s on a spreadsheet. When you treat people well and show a genuine interest, they reciprocate.
  4. Don’t under-estimate the power of a smile – Maybe it was because I was working in an office instead of delivering pizza or working in a warehouse (my prior esteemed positions after high school), but I always walked around with a smile. My manager at the time, a wonderful woman, used to say…keep smiling Mike. When we smile, it sends a signal of warmth and trust to others. By making eye contact and smiling at others, it draws people to us. Think about those you worked for who walked around all day with a frown. Nobody want’s to work for someone like that. As leaders, giving a genuine smile is so important.
  5. Don’t be afraid of confronting team members – I often had to confront people when they were late with their status or administrative tasks. At first I was uncomfortable doing this because I thought I was bothering people. I later learned that most people appreciated it, because usually they needed a reminder. Top performing teams are not afraid to confront each other. Healthy confrontation is essential for trust and team building.
  6. Don’t forget to have fun – Work shouldn’t be a drag. As the person who was responsible for preparing slide decks for meetings, I was also in on all the gags. The team I was on at UPS always had fun. From pizza lunches, softball games, and bringing our guitars to department meetings, we had a culture of fun. We worked hard, but we played hard as well.

It’s funny how when we look back we realize what experiences were so meaningful. Working as an administrative assistant required some humility, but the experience was priceless.  Why? Because I learned about servant leadership and how to interact with people, and it’s all about people.

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