We all have a friend who's impossibly nice. He's generous, always looking for ways to help others out. He really gets to know people and then recommends just the right article, person, or tool to solve their problems. In fact, you'd find him downright annoying if you didn't like him so much.
This guy has credibility - you trust him to do the right thing. This kind of selfless attitude works well on a personal level, but it's also incredibly beneficial for companies to adopt.
Get Where You Want to Go
We think of ourselves as being in competition with the other businesses in our field. Walmart and Target constantly fight for market share; Coca-Cola and Pepsi try to beat each other to every single restaurant contract they can. There's little hand-holding or hugging in the corporate world.
This thinking is shortsighted. When one company sets its sights on the noble purpose of serving people, it inevitably helps its industry, too. By improving the industry as a whole, we guarantee that the playing field we're competing on is improving our product - and, more importantly, is helping our customer enjoy a better experience. Zig Ziglar said it best: "If you help enough people get what they want, you will get what you want."
The servant leadership model subscribes to the idea that we were put on this planet to help others. If we serve with the simple goal of making people's lives better, we shift away from looking for some kind of payback and put our focus, instead, on improving people's situations.
Boosting Your Brothers
The servant leadership ideal may not leave you with warm and fuzzy feelings for your challengers. If you can't get behind the idea of helping others for the sake of improving the landscape, perhaps you can buy in to changing your view of the landscape.
When you give back to your industry - whether through trainings or communities - you position your company as a leader. You create visibility and humanize your brand; people no longer envision a flat logo when they hear your company name - they see other people. Your competitors are drawn to your projects because you symbolize competence, rather than cutthroat destruction.
And this collaboration enables you to learn a lot more than you would in isolation. You're the connector for other people and companies within your field, making you privy to perspectives, knowledge, and strategies you wouldn't have been prior. You become a leader with followers inside your industry, and that's a powerful position.
Serving your industry is particularly powerful in retail. There's a lot of turnover, which means there's a constant influx of new people in the industry. Who's educating them? Are they doing a great job of it? How long does the training last?
Even the best companies only train their sales associates for one- or two-week periods. Most of this time is spent on product education; little time is devoted to the selling process itself. That means there's a massive opportunity to grow - with 52 weeks in a year, supplemental trainings and engaged communities guarantee industry salespeople stay sharp.
Our company had this epiphany a couple years ago. We realized the retail sales associates in our industry weren't being heard, yet they were the ones directly talking to customers. We were also dealing with the high turnover of the mattress industry and recognized that we needed an educational outlet. We created the Sleep Geek community as a result.
The community's open to everyone, including our competitors, and it's a forum to learn from others. We invest in creating content to help them do their jobs better; they can attend class online and watch videos. We also pull in work from contributors across our industry; 90 percent of what we produce has nothing to do with our company. It's a platform for the users, not for us. But we've benefited by leading a conversation our colleagues can't help but be involved in.
Coming Full Circle
Some businesses use the opportunity to "give back" to enhance their partners' success. Staples, for example, launched its Succeed LinkedIn small business community to help the small businesses it works with learn from fellow business owners. LinkedIn itself launched its Influencer program, which enables industry thought leaders to share articles across the network without having to seek out distribution.
To replicate the success of these efforts and launch one of your own, ask yourself:
While you may not have answers for each of the first four questions, the last question is essential. No matter what delivery method you use, you'll need to pull skills and talent from other companies and individuals into the mix. Without that collaboration, your project will become a one-sided conversation that will sound suspiciously similar to a sales pitch. Remember that the goal is to help your industry and, by extension, your customers.
That annoyingly perfect friend who's always ready to lend a hand is someone you trust, appreciate, and admire. By emulating his generosity and finding a way to help your industry, you'll underscore your company's own trustworthiness - and nab a leadership position in the process.
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Mark Quinn is a Segment VP of Marketing with Leggett & Platt and has more than two decades of experience. Quinn writes a bedding industry and marketing blog called Q's Views.
March 19, 2014