Giving Servant Leadership the Works:  An Interview with Ken Melrose

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Giving Servant Leadership the Works:  An Interview with Ken Melrose

An Interview with Ken Melrose, Toro Company's former CEO:

Does faith go to work with you? And if it does, what does it look like? Toro Company’s former CEO, Ken Melrose, answers with a book on servant leadership. Ken’s faith at work showed up in his spirit of service that fostered companywide “pride in excellence,” a corporate management style that freed employees to do what Christ does for us: to be our fullest selves.

In this interview, The High Calling talks to Ken Melrose about how faith informs work and vice versa.

High Calling: Ken, in 1995, you published Making the Grass Greener on Your Side: A CEO’s Journey to Leading by Serving. By that time, a long shelf of books already existed on business leadership. What did you want to add to the discussion?

Ken Melrose: Most business leadership books then were written by consultants and/or academics presenting case studies from research. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, encouraged me to write about the real-life corporate transformation of The Toro Company based on principles of servant leadership. My book took the reader from Toro’s financial near-demise to a bottom-up culture and how it drove business performance.

HC: Which came first, your belief in God or your understanding of servant leadership?

KM: My belief in God came first, stemming from my upbringing and the Christian values taught to me by my parents and brother. My understanding, or perhaps more accurately, my revelation of servant leadership came from my first leadership experience during the ‘70s at Game Time, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Toro.

HC: What did your work at Game Time teach you about servant leadership?

KM: Several concepts about behavior of the leader and those he/she leads: first, every employee has the potential to contribute and do good work. Second, this potential can be realized when the employee is inspired, valued, engaged, empowered, and recognized. And third, the leader’s role is to create this environment. As he/she does, the company goals will best be achieved.

HC: How would you answer the question of where to fit spirituality into a hardscrabble business environment?

KM: A person’s spirituality contributes to his or her wholeness, and I believe the whole of the person must, at some level, come into the work environment. This does not mean going to work as an evangelist. But it does mean being able to exercise one’s own ethics, integrity, character, humility, caring, and valuing of others. These should mesh into our activities and behaviors toward accomplishing the business goals and our performance expectations. If they’re at odds, the lack of alignment will eventually result in a separation from the company.

HC: After you overhauled the management style in a playground manufacturing company, a book on servant leadership sort of codified what you’d experienced. Ongoing, several other books influenced your belief in servant leadership. What kind of reading do you recommend to people who want to excel as leaders?

KM: The landmark book that Covey wrote became formational for me, as well as Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. I particularly liked and have used Peter Block’s Stewardship, Meg Wheatley’s Finding Our Way, and Ken Blanchard’s series beginning with The One-Minute Manager. More recently, Jim Collins’ bestsellers talk about servant leadership in a different but very relevant and meaningful way. Another building-block book for me was a forerunner to Collins’ Good to Great called Real Power by Janet Hagberg.

HC: Is there any way in which business school failed to prepare you? Or a course you’d like to see on the curriculum?

KM: I hear how business schools today tend to create unrealistic expectations for many students, but for me, both MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago seemed too theoretical back in the ‘60s. My bet is that they are different now, but when I began my business career almost 40 years ago, I did not have a good sense of how things really worked in an organization or how the power of teams can be unleashed and focused.

HC: For anyone new to the workforce, can you expand on “how things really work in an organization”?

KM: How things really work in an organization has just as much to do with relationships, feelings, attitudes, and perceptions as with training, tools, and skills. And part of the management difficulty is due to the fact that these, unlike the latter attributes, are often obscured or hard to assess. Management’s challenge is to create an environment of trust, openness, and vulnerability so that the leader can understand and utilize the talents of the whole person.

HC: We know that servant leadership is not a formula; still, can you give concrete examples of how a leader serves?

KM: There are so many, but ones I often use in my discussions with others are by walking the talk, driving to win-win solutions, genuine humility and caring, priority focus on the success of those around you instead of yourself, listening over talking in the same ratio as the instruments God gave us, and demonstrating that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers.

HC: It’s easy to spin a tale of all the things you did right in your career. Tell us about a mistake or something you did wrong, something that humans can relate to.

KM: When we were developing the attributes and values of our new “trusting and valuing others” culture, I wasn’t sensitive to people’s inclination to subordinate their performance responsibilities. In other words, some people copped out on their tangible or “real” goals, because they focused on people values to the detriment of performance values. Consequently, financial results did not meet our expectations. Managers looked at people values and performance values as an “either/or” proposition. We hadn’t yet realized the “power of AND” (Jim Collins) back then (during the ‘80s). So we eventually had to pull up performance requirements (e.g., make sales quotas, reduce costs, improve efficiency or productivity) up by the bootstraps with discipline, focus, very detailed goal-setting, and measurement.

HC: Not everyone is a leader per se. (Or am I wrong?) Can you name a nonleader that you admire and say why?

KM: Well, first of all, most people are leaders, or participate as a leader, even if that’s not how people think of them. At-home moms are certainly leaders; as are volunteers or den pack leaders or neighborhood fund-drive workers. There are the adults who run committees at churches or for the YMCA or coach little league or teach Sunday school or are called on to lead a team or group. I’d say almost all of us play a leadership role at one time or another. But I do have many “nonleader” role models, and they are the so very many people at Toro who took ownership of their work very seriously and grew wiser for the experience. I couldn’t begin to name them all.

HC: How do you define power, and what do you consider its correct use?

KM: Real power comes to you as a leader when you give your power to others around you, and then power is imputed to you by the others. This is how Jesus became powerful as an itinerant carpenter.

HC: A company owner I know is disillusioned at several recent incidences when workers lied or tried to “work” him. Though he likes many of his employees, this has soured his attitude toward leadership; the accumulated effect is that he’s ready to retire. What would you say to him?

KM: It’s hard to suggest a remedy without knowing in depth what’s going on. But in my experience, failures or lapses in employee behavior usually come from a culture where power is misused by those (who think they’re) in control, perhaps like President Nixon’s entourage. Establishing the right beliefs and values by the organization’s leaders and building trust by doing what they say they will do (over and over and over again) are paramount to creating an environment of honesty, doing the right thing, and good character for all constituents. I believe most people respond positively to servant leadership and behaviors such as humility, empowerment, and trustworthiness.

HC: Did you ever pray in the office for success in a business deal? Why or why not?

KM: I’ve prayed in the office a lot, by myself and with others for all kinds of things, including business success. In the early ‘80s when things looked so bad for Toro, I realized I couldn’t lead Toro through the morass without God’s help. When we had to reduce our entire workforce by over 50 percent, I didn’t understand why in the world a marketing person like me was in charge instead of an experienced, financially-oriented, turnaround executive. I framed a sign and hung it right above the phone at my desk that said “God meant you to be here . . . NOW!” Every time I used the telephone (or computer), that sign glared back at me with the answer to my question.

HC: What’s next for you?

KM: I’m learning how to re-fire (vs. retire), how to repurpose my life and energy. I know I have a lot more to do and that God isn’t finished with me yet. So I’m going through the same thing I went through with building the Toro culture in the early ‘80s: what’s my new purpose? What don’t I want to do or be? What role do I want to be playing 10 years from now? And of course, what is my plan?