Servant Leadership Keeps Me at BK

by David Marshall

March 09, 2018

People stay longer at companies that practice servant leadership.
I know because it happened to me.

Awhile back I celebrated my tenth anniversary with Berrett-Koehler Publishers (BK). I worked for thirteen companies before BK, but never more than five years with any of them. I’ve now lapped myself!

Looking back at serving myself

In 2007, after 25 years in the software business, I thought I was finished working for “The Man.” At most of my previous employers, I worked for bosses who were serving themselves, not others. To get ahead, I had to figure out how to serve my boss better. Others could wait. Many did the same and it was a vicious climb up the pyramid, often crawling over colleagues’ backs to get ahead. It was both exhausting and demoralizing.

At 50, I was through with company life, content to be writing family journals with my wife Kate—but I answered an ad from BK as a lark. Maybe I could learn the other side of how books are made. They wanted a software veteran to help them transition from print to digital. When I took the job, I figured I’d be at BK for two years max. I’m still here ten years later, and the biggest reason why is servant leadership.

Looking to serve others today

I feel I’m making a dent in the universe (to use Steve Jobs’s phrase) in a way I never did before. This job gives me meaning and purpose. In my own small way, I’m making a difference in people’s lives.

BK’s mission is “connecting ideas and people to create a world that works for all.” We curate positive ideas from influential change makers and then distribute their messages around the world. We’re like a megaphone for people who want to make the world a better place. Now with digital amplification, it’s like a soapbox on steroids.

The biggest reason I’m still at BK is my boss, Steve Piersanti, the founder and president of the company. He’s a true servant leader, and the most humble person I’ve ever worked for. He sets the vision and inspires us to reach Mount Everest goals, but he never micromanages. (You can read more about his approach to leadership in his post about the new leadership paradigm.) When Ken Blanchard described flipping the pyramid upside down, I thought to myself: that's how Steve leads at BK. No wonder I jump out of bed every morning looking forward to going to work.

Looking forward to more service

Servant leadership is deeply engrained in our culture at Berrett-Koehler. It’s part of “The BK Way,” a set of written and unwritten guidelines about who we are, what we value, and how we act. Our decision-making model encourages all voices to rise up and be heard. We don’t just publish positive change books, we test drive them in our own company.

For example, we published a book Abolishing Performance Appraisals a few years ago—and then proceeded to get rid of performance appraisals at BK (replaced by frequent check-ins). We have our own Constitution to govern our work. In my own servant leadership practice managing editorial department members, I help them craft their job descriptions and then get out of their way and watch them flourish. If something goes wrong on my team, I follow Ken Blanchard’s advice and always assume at least 51% of the fault rests with me.

But even for BK, which as been striving to practice servant leadership for 25 years, it’s still a work in progress.

Topics: Your Team, Book Publishing, Berrett-Koehler, Servant Leadership, Leadership and Management

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