Servant Leadership In Action: The Language of Outcomes

by | Leadership, Planning & Strategy

“But really, what does that look like in action?”

Joyce, a newly promoted marketing director, posed this question at our very first leadership coaching session. We had been exploring the power of servant leadership — leading from a place of confidence, empathy, and service to others. The look on her face revealed that she was intrigued, but still baffled by how servant leadership shows up in real life.

In her new role, Joyce was asked to give monthly updates to her executive vice president. Every month, Joyce prepared a few slides and offered a 10 minute presentation of her department’s progress.

These monthly updates presented Joyce with a fantastic opportunity to practice servant leadership, by flipping the expected script of a status update.

The updates that Joyce’s executive leaders were used to focused on tactical to do lists:

  • What’s the scope?
  • What’s the budget?
  • Are we on time?

Scope, budget, and timeline give limited information, and it’s all focused on action. Action is good, but those details give us approximately zero data points about the results.

Instead of sharing the same information that always gets shared, I encouraged Joyce to start sharing her updates from her department based on a different set of questions.

  • What’s the problem we are working on?
  • What is the outcome we are expecting?
  • What are we doing and how is it going?

If you speak in the language of outcomes, you will influence everyone’s thinking. You will change the dynamics of the conversation. You will even change the relationship that you have with the leaders around you.

By changing your own language, you mirror a subtle way to talk about outcomes And that’s powerful.

Shifting the language you use to share information is a mighty act of servant leadership.

Using an outcomes lens to share information shifts the questions that get asked. When the questions start changing, the entire organization starts to change.

We get stuck in organizational patterns, because we just keep asking the same question.

When you start shifting the questions that other people are asking, you are influencing the conversation without being in charge of it. You are fundamentally changing the patterns of decision-making.

You don’t need to wait until the next annual planning process or strategy session either. You can lead this shift towards outcomes in your very next meeting. Whether you are the CEO of the company desperately trying to get everyone to understand the importance of outcomes over output or the product manager updating the senior leadership team on progress, you can dramatically improve the quality of conversation by framing goals with an outcome lens.

Even if, like Joyce, you only get ten minutes to share an update, imagine the wildly different conversation that could result if problems and outcomes are discussed early and often?

You might be the first person to put the problem into writing and bring it up as a topic. What if it’s uncovered that everyone has different understandings of the problem? What a gift to know. It might get messy, but it will surely be less messy and costly to work that out now vs. after a solution is delivered.

In Joyce’s situation, she uncovered that the marketing department and the IT department had very different ideas about what a successful outcome would be for the redesign of the company’s online contact form. Marketing was focused on user experience and IT had security criteria that Joyce knew nothing about. By reminding everyone of the problem they were trying to solve, the team quickly identified the misunderstanding and got back on track.

Creating space for a conversation about outcomes is an act of servant leadership. Every time.

Take action now:

1. Before jumping into a tactical conversation about solutions, clearly answer the question “What problem are we trying to solve?” 

Too often, leaders skip over getting a shared understanding about the problem, only to struggle, swirl, and suffer when it comes to aligning on priorities. 

Starting with the problem can be a fast way to ground everyone with the purpose of the conversation. Even if the only thing you are sharing is an update, name the problem first.

2. Next, even if it’s just a single slide in your deck, answer, “How will we know we’ve solved the problem?” Be careful here. The answer to this question isn’t a solution, a budget, or a timeline. The answer to the question should clearly describe the real outcome that will deliver value. 

3. After the problem and the outcome are clear, you can update everyone on progress. What are we doing to solve the problem and how are we progressing towards the desired outcome? 


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