How ‘servant leadership’ drives success

Published on the 10/05/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson


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Who is the most important person in any company? It’s not the CEO…

Recently minted ServiceNow CEO John Donahoe reckons most companies have got it all wrong. Just look at their organisational charts – they’re upside down, with the boss at the apex and a bunch of serfs taking up the broadest rung. And no sign of customers on that chart either.

His view of ‘servant leadership’ puts the customer at the apex, with everyone else falling into an inverted pyramid. At the bottom, you’ll find the CEO (likely, we venture, that superimposing the remuneration plan will produce a perfect six-pointed star).

“Servant leadership puts the focus on serving customers and employees, with customers at the top. And my job is to help employees serve customers,” Donahoe told the 15,000 attendees at ServiceNow’s ‘Knowledge 17’ conference.

While that inverted pyramid might put Donahoe about as far from customers as he could get – organisationally, because every layer of employees stands between him and them – that’s not quite how he rolls. Indeed, the former top eBay executive is just 49 days into a job which he said was easy to say yes to, partially because he was once a customer. “The opportunity [at ServiceNow] is to transform how enterprises operate. But to do that, my top priority was to listen and to learn and the best place to learn a company or industry is by listening to customers.”

And so, his plan for the first 100 days was to meet with 100 customers. He hit that target just 45 days in.

Donahue said the company is driven by a simple commitment: “Our job as a company is to listen to customers and build good technology to solve those problems. So, we listen, we build and we learn. And we repeat that over and over,” he told the audience.

For those who don’t know much about ServiceNow, it is at heart an IT service management company (ITSM). Founded in 2004 by Fred Luddy, it has grown substantially by sticking to the vision Luddy had of ‘building a cloud based platform which would enable regular people to route work through an enterprise’.

Quite frankly, ITSM isn’t all that exciting. It is about keeping the lights on and providing ‘users’ with a way to get ‘IT’ to solve their problems. It is also an industry which was once dominated by ‘ye olde IT companies’ like CA, HP and IBM, with their respective products Unicenter, OpenView and Tivoli.

ServiceNow has arguably made ITSM considerably more interesting, not only because it whacked the whole lot into the cloud and opted for this sharp focus on listening to customers and ‘transforming the way people work’, but also because it realised that the principles of ITSM aren’t applicable only to the IT department. Other departments have similar problems between ‘users’ and those providing ‘services’ – like human resources security and customer services. And, no doubt, plenty more.

“We start with IT, but it doesn’t stop there. Starting 4 or 5 years ago, we saw that the automation of workflows could be added to environments outside of IT, so we followed customers with that to launch new cloud services for security, customer support and HR. We’ve invested heavily in strengthening and building these cloud services, and gone further with our Business Applications, so the ServiceNow platform is the digital transformation partner across the enterprise,” Donahoe explained.

The first ServiceNow conference, Donahoe said, attracted 85 people. Luddy, said Donahoe, noticed that customers started to talk to one another, sharing their experiences and knowledge of using ServiceNow software to automate and improve IT execution. It may be apocryphal or figurative, but apparently realising that this was the real value of a conference, Luddy tore up his presentation notes.

Donahoe said this is an ethos which runs through the company to this day; when it asked customers for feedback on what it is doing well, there was much enthusiastic back-patting, which he was obviously happy to share.

Perhaps more unusual, however, was the Donahoe was also quite happy to share what ServiceNow customers believe the company can do better. “We’re only as good as the feedback we get. You told us that you want the full benefits of our platform as we innovate and do releases. You want more proactivity, with best practice implementations from similar organisations. You told us you want to benefit from collective experience, that to drive investment in our ecosystem you need more trained partners, especially on our newer products. And you want faster time to value.”

Notably, Donahoe said customers are demanding better user experiences. Not ‘best in class for enterprise software’, but ‘best in class for consumer experiences’. While some of our mobile tools are a great start, the user experience has opportunity for improvement. We agree with that.”

Lastly, customers want more insight on the ServiceNow roadmap, because, said Donahue, “You don’t want to develop your own app only to discover we’ll release the same thing in a few months.”

Donovan Jackson travelled to Orlando as the guest of ServiceNow.

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