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Walk a Mile Before You Leap into Leadership Decisions

One of the reasons I enjoy participating in podcasts is the ideas that surface from preparation. During one of my pre-podcast study sessions, I recalled the success of a CEO I admire who served at the helm not once but twice for a company called ServiceMaster.

I identified with William Pollard because he was someone who put an emphasis on aligning his people with purpose. As I dug deeper into his approach to leadership, I also spotted our shared philosophy about how you respect everyone in your company no matter their role.

A lot has been written about leadership approaches, philosophies, and winning frameworks, but if we’re frank with each other, much of it boils down to how we respect one another. I know it may sound like a simple platitude, but the way we’ve seen leaders communicate lately—especially in a national and global realm—makes me believe that “simple platitude” is an unfair assessment.

As you know, humility, honesty, and heart are enduring principles that have guided my interactions over the years. For Pollard, it was his “walk a mile” idea that governed his leadership practices.

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Pollard not only improved the well-being of his employees by connecting them with purpose, but he also sent a consistent message that everyone mattered. How does one person get this message across to the masses in a large company? Pollard would have said, “One shoe at a time.” Putting everyone in another person’s shoes was the way Pollard liked to keep himself and his employees grounded. This metaphor translated into a variety of practices he instituted at ServiceMaster.

Experiencing the work lives of everyone in the company was a priority. Pollard launched a program where every officer and employee spent one day a year performing service work for customers. This annual exercise was a great reminder that a leader should never ask others to do something they aren’t willing to do themselves. The practice also helped employees and leaders check their egos in relation to direct-service providers.

Pollard explained that you have to constantly work at not letting the trappings of the executive offices go to your head. “You have to make sure that you keep dipping into the organization at what I call strategic intersect points, where the service meets the customer,” said Pollard. He added that he couldn’t call a week successful if he didn’t have the opportunity to directly observe service delivery and the customer’s responses.

Though his philosophy couldn’t always change what had to be done, it gave Pollard an empathetic lens when making decisions. For instance, he agonized over choices that required asking employees to move their families where the company was expanding. Pollard tested his willingness to do what he asked of others: “I would come home to Judy [his wife] and ask, ‘Are we willing to do what I’m asking Mary and her husband to consider?’”

Pollard influenced the future of leadership and helped shape the way people live, work, and interact. It’s no surprise that he experienced great success over the twenty-five-year period that he participated in the company’s direction. During his tenure, ServiceMaster was recognized as the number-one service company among the Fortune 500. It was also dubbed a “star of the future” by the Wall Street Journal and one of the most respected companies in the world by the Financial Times.

Some might say Pollard’s shoes are tough to fill, but my guess is his response would be, “not if you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes now and then.”

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