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The World’s 10 Top CEOs (They Lead in a Totally Unique Way)

You’re about to get schooled in a leadership philosophy that’s been around for centuries, but only practiced by a few wildly successful global leaders, like these.

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BY Marcel Schwantes - 29 Mar 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Over the last three decades, Servant Leadership has risen from a noble and ethical leadership ideology stuck in religious worldviews to the very principles of how the most successful companies on the planet operate and profit.

Yet, if you're not sufficiently informed of its modern-day behaviors and practices as espoused by leading authors, thought-leaders and scholars, a false perception may lead you astray. Typically, what you think servant leadership is...usually is the opposite of what it truly is.

Take a cue from the world's top brands. They have grasped the immense power that is generated from putting people (employees) ahead of profits through shared values like authenticity, intrapreneurship, freedom and ownership, community, and collaboration. And servant-leaders, naturally, have leveraged this emotional currency as the only sustainable model for the future of work.

Oh, did I say "future?" Actually, it has arrived and it is here to stay, unless we revert back to the industrial revolution. Fat chance.

It is clear that these wildly successful companies, some that are regularly featured on Fortune magazine's annual 100 Best Companies to Work for list for having high trust, high employee engagement, and low turnover, are led by leaders who walk the talk of servant leadership.


The Chosen 10

As I researched the most relevant CEOs to compile into a Top 10 servant leadership list, my biggest challenge was narrowing it down to just ten! Truth is--they are all relevant; they've all made a positive impact in business, society, and the future of work.

In the end, while you may disagree with my narrow subjectivity, I chose CEOs and founders whom I felt depicted a cross-representation and mixed bag of leaders from larger companies across various industries and verticals--for profit and non-profit alike--that would appeal to multi-generations and consumer diversity. I also picked CEOs who envision a broader view of servant leadership and its impact on the greater good through humanitarian efforts. Some are newcomers; others are dinosaurs of the movement.

In fairness to my selection process, I think it would be honorable to include those that would have made a longer list--perhaps a Top 20 List for next time. My honorary mentions are: Michael Williams, President & CEO, Community Hospital Corporation; Joel Manby, CEO, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment; Dan Cathy, CEO, Chick-fil-A; Greg Sandfort, CEO, Tractor Supply Company; John Hope Bryant, Founder/CEO, Operation HOPE; and Howard Schultz, CEO at Starbucks, who is stepping down on April 2nd.


No.10: Sylvia Metayer, CEO, Sodexo Corporate Services worldwide

Metayer is the sole non-American executive on this list. Holding French/British/Canadian citizenship, she leads Sodexo's Corporate Services segment--the worldwide leader in improving the Quality of Life of 75 million people. In 2016, for the 5th year in a row, Sodexo was among Fortune's "World's Most Admired Companies."

I chose her to kick off this list because of her division's clear focus--under her guidance--on understanding how human beings thrive at work. This is evidenced by their massive 2017 Global Workforce Trends report. Through their research, they identified six dimensions of quality of life on which Sodexo's services have a direct impact:

• The Physical Environment: Ensuring that employees are safe and feel comfortable.

• Health & Well-Being: Providing opportunities to make employees healthier.

• Social Interaction: Strengthening bonds among individuals and facilitating access to culture and leisure.

• Recognition: Making employees feel valued.

• Ease & Efficiency: Simplifying the daily employee experience and improving work-life balance.

• Personal Growth: Helping employees grow and develop.

As with all servant-leaders in high-ranking roles, leadership is an ever-evolving journey for Metayer. In a recent interview with Chief Learning Officer, she discusses the research behind the report and defines her role as a servant-leader:

I've been CEO for 18 months so I'm learning. I'm learning that to be a CEO is to be a servant. My main job is to support our employees, and be a support to our clients and to our consumers. In supporting our employees, I think the most important thing -- and it really comes as a consolidation of many trends -- is how do you make people's work easier? It's why we focus a lot on the impact of automation robotics technology and the work that our people do. It's also very much about making them ready. The world is changing very fast, so we have to create career paths, and we have to support the training of our people so that they're ready for change. It's actually quite an endeavor because it means shifting our organization from a very traditional model, which is very top-down, to one where we learn how to be collaborative.


No.9: David K. Williams, Chairman and CEO, Fishbowl

Fishbowl is the leading customer engagement platform provider for the restaurant industry.

Williams, a serial entrepreneur, is an authority on using servant leadership to substantially increase organizational success. His book, The 7 Non Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results, teaches the transformational principles his team implemented at Fishbowl: Winning; Respect, Belief, Trust, Loyalty, Commitment, Courage, Gratitude.

Fishbowl is one of the few companies in Utah that is employee owned and has made a commitment to pursue excellence for their employees.

Like most high-profile servant-leader execs, he extends the hands and feet of servant leadership outwardly through humanitarian efforts via the Courage Above Mountains (CAM) Foundation. CAM, named after Williams' son Cameron who died of cancer at the age of 25, provides learning, health, and enrichment services to underserved individuals in the U.S. and abroad.

You'll see a vibrant spirit of service culturally on display by Fishbowl employees. Every year, Fishbowl dedicates a day of service to their community for a major project to help groups such as Native Americans, veterans, children, and single moms.

While getting employees out of the office on their annual day of service can cost between $150K to 200K, Williams is quick to point out, "The passion this creates and the bond it instills in a company makes it one of the best ROI decisions you could possibly make."


No.8: Melissa Reiff, CEO, The Container Store

Melissa Reiff is the new face of the much beloved The Container Store. Many people are still unaware of the change in the leadership guard that took place last July. Reiff took over for long-time CEO Kip Tindell, who founded the company in 1978 and has since stayed on as chairman after stepping down.

One thing that has not changed, thankfully, is The Container Store's continued commitment to "conscious capitalism" and its servant leadership-driven culture. To nobody's surprise, The Container Store remains one of the best places to work and to shop in America. Its No.49 ranking on Fortune's annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For marks 18 consecutive years that the retailer has been included on the employer of choice list.

"We continuously strive to create a better, more innovative and compelling place to shop and to work, for the near and long term success of our company. That includes a relentless focus on doing what's right for ALL of our stakeholders by operating our business through the lens of our Foundation Principles and a commitment to conscious leadership," Reiff told me over email.

Having witnessed my share of leadership train wrecks over the years, I was most impressed with the principle of "Communication IS Leadership," which Reiff personally crafted in definition as "daily execution of practicing consistent, reliable, predictable, effective, thoughtful, compassionate, and yes, even courteous communication."

In even simpler terminology, they strive for every single employee in the company to know absolutely everything. While this can be a daunting undertaking for any company, Reiff firmly acknowledges the power behind this principle on its website -- that "nothing makes someone feel more a part of a team than knowing everything has been communicated to them. We know that some information we share could fall into competitors' hands, but the advantages far outweigh the risks."


No.7: Harold MacDowell, CEO, TDIndustries

TDIndustries is a leading mechanical construction and facilities service company in Dallas. MacDowell is the third CEO at TDIndustries, following in the footsteps of his predecessors--demigods in the servant leadership spectrum: founder Jack Lowe, Sr. and his son, Jack Lowe, Jr.

As the CEO since 2005, MacDowell continues to deepen TD's commitment to servant leadership and to the "Great Place to Work" culture that plays such a key role in sustaining an environment in which employees are valued, respected and appreciated. They're also 100-percent, employee-owned, and everyone is on a first-name basis. As a result, TD has made the prestigious list, featured in Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies, 20 straight years.

MacDowell says the focus has always been about keeping people employed, even during the worst of times. He tells Contracting Business magazine, "We've learned through every down cycle in the economy of the need to react quickly, and look far enough ahead to be sure we have the revenue we need to keep people employed."

Since culture matters more than anything at TD, leaders at every level ensure that their core values are lived out daily:

Building and Maintain Trusting Relationships

Fiercely Protect the Safety of All Partners

Lead with a Servant's Heart

Passionately Pursue Excellence

Celebrate the Power of Individual Differences

Communication is a key attribute of Harold's servant leadership. He has set up formal and informal feedback mechanisms to get important and open feedback, a practice started by founder Jack Lowe, who used to invite groups of employees to his home for spaghetti dinners. Harold makes sure that all of his senior leaders have similar sessions at least quarterly, to listen deeply and keep communication open.

TDIndustries has had numerous offers to be bought out. Each time, Harold concluded that selling out would kill their servant leadership culture. He says, "If we sold out to somebody else, they'd want to run the number up, flip it, and take it public. And I haven't seen many of those operations preserve the cultures of the great companies that were bought out. We're focused on generating the wealth through the employee stock ownership plan, without killing the culture."


No.6: Kristen Hadeed, Founder and CEO of Student Maid

In 2009, as a junior at the University of Florida, Hadeed started Student Maid, an all-student cleaning company that has since grown into a company that has employed hundreds of millennials.

She met leadership failure right off the gates. When 45 of her first 60 employees quit, she realized she was the reason. "The way I was leading wasn't the right way," said Hadeed in a 2014 talk. "That's when I realized that leadership isn't a privilege to do less. Leadership is a responsibility to do more."

Things are much different now, and the company she founded is known for its industry-leading employee retention rate. For cleaning companies, on average, turnover happens every two months. At Student Maid, it's two and a half years (mostly because students graduate and move on).

She built a culture of values where everyone is expected to live up to them. She offered training that went beyond cleaning and dusting, teaching people to build great relationships with their customers and their fellow "maids" in order to provide the best possible experience for everyone.

Hadeed attributes happy customers to happy employees. She is a firm believer of the power of giving her employees purpose, freedom, ownership, and recognition in engaging people to do their best work:

Her first TEDx Talk, How to Retire by 20, has received over two million hits. In it, she talks about her true passion--doing something good for other people, which explains why Student Maid cleans free for cancer patients.

Like a true servant-leader, Hadeed now spends most of her time helping other organizations all over make a lasting, meaningful impact on people by creating environments in which they thrive.


No.5: Brittany Merrill Underwood, CEO & Founder, Akola Jewelry

Brittany is a clear example of a servant-leader practicing conscious capitalism to transform the lives of impoverished women and families. Through her non-profit social business, Akola's jewelry line is the first Full-Impact Brand to be sold in the luxury space through their national launch in Neiman Marcus. [watch her story here]

Akola reinvests 100 percent of their profits to support work opportunities, training, social programs and the construction of training centers and water wells in impoverished communities throughout the globe.

Their impact model for social business is paving the way for high impact millennial-run businesses that seek to have an impact on the world.

Brittany was named the 'Best Person in the World" by Yahoo! in 2014 and was honored by clothing manufacturer Levi as one of 50 women around the globe who have changed the political, cultural, and spiritual shape of the future.

Brittany continues to devote her life to creating a brand that empowers women through economic and holistic development.


No.4: Garry Ridge, CEO, WD-40 Company

Chances are you'll probably find a can of WD-40 in your garage. Garry Ridge, who calls himself the "chief" of the WD-40 "tribe," is a big believer in creating lasting memories in his staff's minds every day. He attributes this as the key to having built the company's success during his 22-year tenure.

Ridge passionately speaks about how creating a culture of trust (not fear), respect and candor has been transformative: "Leadership is about learning and teaching. Why waste getting old if you can't get wise? We have no mistakes here, we have learning moments," he explains in Forbes.

Ridge believes the annual performance review process is broken. Like all servant-leaders, coaching, development, and feedback should be an everyday conversation between leader and direct report, a theme often noted in his 2009 book co-authored with Ken Blanchard titled Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy called "Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A.

At WD-40, employee engagement numbers are in excess of 90 percent and shareholder value has grown consistently over the past 14 years.

Ridge describes how a focus on the servant leadership principles of values, learning, teaching, growth, and community can lead to enhanced performance by helping people step into the best version of themselves.


No.3: Bob Chapman, CEO, Barry-Wehmiller

Chapman became chief executive officer of family-owned Barry-Wehmiller in 1975 at age 30, after the untimely death of his father. Today, $2+ billion Barry-Wehmiller is a combination of more than 80 acquired companies with over 11,000 team members in 100+ locations around the globe.

As Chapman states in his book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Treating Your People Like Family, his early focus as CEO was on financial success. That reality soon faded as he came to the realization that being a good steward of the business meant making sure that his employees received more than just a paycheck in return for their time and talent.

He believed, as a business owner, it was his responsibility to create an environment where his team members had the chance to develop their gifts and feel that they and their work matters.

"I was in the midst of raising six kids, feeling the deep sense of responsibility of making sure they were cared for and had the tools to develop into the people they were meant to be. It dawned on me that I wanted to give that same opportunity to the team members who worked for me," recalls Chapman in his TrulyHumanLeadership blog.

Since the early 2000s, Chapman has championed the transformation of Barry-Wehmiller's culture into one focused on bringing out the best in its people through communication, trust, celebration, respect, continuous improvement and responsible freedom. "We now have a new way of defining our success," says Chapman. "At Barry-Wehmiller, we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people."


No.2: Ari Weinzweig, founding partner of Zingerman's Community of Businesses

Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a short sandwich menu and a staff of two. Today, Ari and Paul have built Zingerman's into an organization with 10 companies, $64 million in revenue, more than 750 employees and 22 managing partners. Zingerman's is truly a Ann Arbor, Michigan, institution--the source of great food and great experiences for over 500,000 visitors every year.

Their sustainable vision for what great leadership looks like is founded on Robert Greenleaf's idea of Servant Leadership, now referred by others as the "Zingerman's model." This model begins with Ari's belief in the power of "visioning" and includes a commitment to Open Book Management and opportunities for employee ownership.

Under Ari and Paul's leadership, Zingerman's has become an advocate for anti-oppression and anti-racism, clearly celebrating the virtues of diversity with big goals in mind. Their website's "Commitment to Diversity" statements declare,

We've been tabulating data over the years that show increases in the experience of inclusion according to racial and ethnic identity, gender and expression identity, disabilities, and many others. Our pipeline of managing partners continues to diversify, and we are on target in the next ten years to have a partners group that mirrors the racial and ethnic demographic makeup of our county on the 2020 census and affirm our aim to be a truly anti-racist organization.

Ari has received praise for many of his books, including the Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading series and his latest, Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to the Power of Beliefs in Business.

Favorite quote: "Beliefs underlie every single thing we do, both individually and organizationally. Beliefs are like the root system of our lives. In my metaphor I started to look at organizational culture as the soil. Clearly the quality of the soil will have a huge impact on what's planted--new ideas or new people--in the organization."


No. 1: Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

Bachelder's story, documented in her book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others, is the most compelling case study showcasing the power of servant leadership to reinvent a company from the inside out. This was also compelling enough for me to consider her No.1 ranking.

When she was named CEO in 2007, guest visits had been declining for years, restaurant sales and profit trends were negative, and the company stock price had dropped from $34 in 2002 to $13. The brand was stagnant, and relations between the company and its franchise owners were strained.

By 2014, sales were up 25 percent, profits up 40 percent. Market share had grown from 14 percent to 21 percent, and the stock price was over $40 (it is holding at $78 as of this writing). The franchisees were ecstatic with the turnaround and began reinvesting in the brand, many remodeling their restaurants and building new ones around the world.

The difference?

Bachelder says that it was a conscious decision to create a new workplace (with rigorous measures in place) where people were treated with respect and dignity, yet challenged to perform at the highest level.

Bachelder outlines her philosophy for transforming Popeyes in a nutshell: "We needed to serve the people who have invested the most in Popeyes." This meant Bachelder and her team shined the spotlight on the restaurant owners, listening and responding to their needs. Self-serving leaders were filtered out as collaboration increased and people were valued.

By improving the franchisee experience through the practices of servant leadership, the customer experience became richer and more satisfying, leading to more loyal customers.

Because of Popeyes turnaround success, Cheryl was the recipient of the 2015 Norman Award by the U.S. restaurant industry, an award to recognize an industry executive whose leadership has made a significant impact on their industry peers.

Favorite Bachelder quote: "I must know you to grow you."

Unfortunately, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen earlier this month announced the end of an incredible CEO-tenure and success story. Bachelder will step down as the fried chicken chain is sold to Restaurant Brands International Inc., the owner of Burger King and Tim Hortons, for $1.8 billion.


Who would you add to this list? Follow the conversation on Twitter using #ServantLeadership and "My Choice for CEO."

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