Welcome to our interview with Marcel Schwantes, the founder of Leadership from the Core. Marcel is a leading expert in helping companies develop exceptional servant leadership cultures. He is an entrepreneur, executive coach, keynote speaker and syndicated columnist.
Welcome to this forum Marcel and thank you for contributing your insights and wisdom to the Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
Q1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
You know that’s a loaded question because it implies that you have the right people in the right leadership spot. I think it was John Maxwell who said “everything starts and ends with leadership.” So I have to point at the people you have within your organization that are making decisions and question whether those people are human-centered leaders.
I won’t even call them servant leaders yet. I’m going to call them human-centered leaders who have a natural understanding of what it takes for humans to succeed. Human-centered leaders who tap into human emotions and understand what behaviors drive high performance. That solves the culture question and everything else you mentioned in your question.
When you tap into the human potential, people are going to go above and beyond. They are going to be more creative and innovative when they feel psychological safety and valued intrinsically. That’s what happens when you have human motivation. People just give their best. When you remove fear from the workplace, you set up those kinds of work environments that lead to all the things you just said in your question.
Q2: How do we get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
I think every answer I give will be biased based on my working philosophy of leading by valuing the human. Valuing them not only as employees but also as a people. There’s always a person before they’re an employee. To me it always starts with building the relationship because when you do that, you show people that you value them as an individual and show that you care.
This philosophy is also consistent with the research on servant leadership. The research says that when you meet the needs of others, it empowers them to scale mountains, which addresses the business outcome question. Sure you want reasonable relationships, but not at the expense of results. When you do that, you get both.
Q3: What do you think people really lack and long for at work?
People lack so many things but let me boil it down to what keeps coming up for me in client surveys and the people I interview. People lack being recognized. They lack having the spotlight put on them for the work they do. I believe that executives and high-level managers now have the self-awareness to give their employees the credit. But what happens at the end of the year and who gets the big fat bonus and more stock options?
When I say put the spotlight on people, I mean recognize them not only for their work and contributions, but continue to recognize them through compensation.
That really separates the most humble and human centered leaders from the pack because it shows that “Hey, I’m not above you.” Because as an executive who achieves some measure of financial performance, they get more money, more notoriety, and the parking spot in front of the building and so on. So as leaders, we must level out the playing field so that employees are recognized through various means on an equal par.
Q4: What is the most important question leaders should be asking employees?
This is not going to be so much on a strategy or 30,000 foot level answer, but every leader has to put themselves in the position to ask themselves a very look in the mirror question and that is, whose life am I impacting today? But it’s really a two-part question, and the second part of that question is, what gifts am I giving that’s going to help people improve themselves and their lives as a worker? And as a human being?
These questions are the ones that I would start with from the perspective of self-reflective leadership.
Q5: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders?
If you are an employee that has the mindset of a servant follower, then your best question to ask a leader is to help empower and support that leader. One question could be, what is it that you need for me to make this team better or to support you better as a manager? Another is, what’s that one thing that you need for from me as an employee to make this work environment better?
In the best workplace environments it’s never about me. It’s about WE. It’s about how does the team win? This question might be a little different from most other questions where the employee focuses on himself or herself. But the reason that I tossed that out as potential questions to ask is because it already implies that the employee is experiencing a level of engagement to begin with because that’s what we’re after.
Q6: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Because I see the level of toxicity of so many work environments, the question is, how do we alleviate suffering in the workplace? That’s my big question. I try to address this question in 90% of everything I write including the book manuscript that I’m developing now.
I had my own encounter with workplace toxicity in the past. I felt it to the point of physically and emotionally impacting me. This suffering literally took a physical form where I was on disability for a few weeks and suffered a stress fracture on my back because of toxic management. Before I even read up on any of the studies on a correlation between toxic management structures to employee health and well-being, I was a casualty. I see now that research is saying toxic work environments lead to stress, anxiety, or even death. When people are exposed to horrific work environments, it takes a toll on their health. Psychosomatically, whatever goes on in the mind will manifest in disease. Whatever is going on emotionally will eventually lead to things like heart disease and other serious ailments.
Q7: You’ve written many excellent articles for Inc. Magazine. If you had to select one most important article for people to read, which one would it be and why?
As I was doing my research to inform my book on love and leadership on how the best leaders lead through actionable love, I stumbled into compassionate management. It’s a thing that’s actually highly espoused by Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn. Jeff sent out a tweet last year that said one of the benefits of getting older is a far greater appreciation for three things that are too often taken for granted. Then he listed the three things. Number one is Health. Number two is Love. And number three is time. So I ran with his Tweet and made it into an article for Inc. Magazine. In the article, I talked about how we can’t ignore our health and how that greatly impacts our well-being and ability to perform at a high level.
Obviously, the time part is the time we have to focus on the things that matter the most to us. For the love part, I highlighted Jeff Weiner’s interest in compassionate management. I quote him as saying that compassionate reaction has more value than an act of empathy. Compassion is basically empathy on steroids. Weiner said that a leader is someone who in their heart of hearts wants to do everything to alleviate suffering. They have the power to make decisions in the workplace to alleviate the suffering or to remove the obstacles. That’s compassionate management. What is it that you can do to be more compassionate in the workplace without falling for the soft fuzziness of the word? It’s a powerful word when you put yourself in the position of removing obstacles so that other people can succeed.
That should be a huge strength of leadership that more people should tune in to, and so I truly admire that one of our most well known CEOs is advocating for compassionate management. So I wrote about this in the article and lo-and-behold Jeff Weiner read it. He then tags my name and posts a status update on LinkedIn. The next thing I know my phone is blowing up with requests. I’m literally getting one connection request per minute for seven or eight hours. So that made an impact on me that was on his radar screen, and he was kind enough to share it with this global audience.
Q8: What has been the biggest surprise that has come out of your work in servant leadership or writing for Inc. magazine?
Writing for Inc. Magazine does provide a fair amount of exposure globally, so you never know who’s going to come knocking on your door. The government administration that we’re under currently I would not call as having an interest in servant leadership. So I was quite surprised when I was asked to provide a speech at the CIA.
I wouldn’t think that there would be an interest in that topic, but the CIA asked me to speak and do a workshop on servant leadership. As it turned out, I discovered that it was the second in command at the CIA who was the one that had an interest. That’s the best-case scenario is when you have somebody at the top wanting to Champion the cause.
I’m not saying that she is championing that cause now because I don’t know what happened since I left a few months ago, but just the mere fact that I was invited to speak on servant leadership indicates that something triggered deep inside the leadership structure there to risk bringing somebody like me to speak on something that’s so counterintuitive under this Administration.
I delivered the talks and I can tell you that there were many deer in headlight looks in the room. At the same time, there were people that were soaking up every word coming out of my mouth. It was a 50/50 split in the room, but it gave me hope that maybe there are enough people banging the drum about more human centered approaches of leadership.
If we can affect government space, then we’ve done a great service not only on behalf of government but on behalf of our citizens as well.
Q9: What’s the single best piece of advice that you’d like to pass on to people?
I thought about a quote from Ken Blanchard who once said that “servant leadership is love in action.” Many people misconstrue the word love in the worst possible ways and what Ken meant and what I mean when I write articles about leadership and love in the same sentence is agape love. It’s an actionable love⏤a verb, not a feeling. It’s not the emotion as much as it is what you are doing for other people.
Going back to Jeff Weiner and his compassionate management philosophy, it is a practical love. When you love your people, they will run through walls for you. So that’s what I want to leave leaders with as they think about how to elevate their game.
Q10: What question is at the heart of Marcel Schwantes?
I’ll go back to the self-reflective question that every aspiring leader should ask and that is, what are you doing to improve the life of an employee? What are you giving them as gifts that they can take with them? And maybe even pay it forward and make leaders of other leaders to create a leadership culture? Not only in your company or organization but in our society.
That’s what I would leave behind as the question that’s in my heart. I think it defines my work. When I wake up in the morning, it’s the running question in my head. What I think about is how can I help shift the mindset of one person to look at leadership in the sense of improving someone else’s life?
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