Lessons from the water-boy: How to lead and serve

Zingerman's Deli co-founder Ari Weinzweig
Hannah Metler

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY We measure leaders' effectiveness more by what they do than by what they say. But after reading "Being a Better Leader" by ace restaurateur Ari Weinzweig, we can add another gauge -- measure leaders by what they write.

Ari is an old friend and fellow resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., so I have watched closely how he and business partner Paul Saginaw built their deli Zingerman's not only into an entire community of food-related businesses, but also an international culinary sensation.

What I like about Ari's new book, the second in his series about management and leadership, is its utter practicality. Ari knows what it takes to build a business, as well as to lead it -- two very different skills. By his own admission, Ari has made a few mistakes along the way, "Being a Better Leader" gets to the heart of what it means to lead people in ways that enrich the lives of all stakeholders, including customers, employees, and owners.

The key theme in the book rests upon Ari's commitment to what he calls "servant leadership," which at bottom means putting the organization's interests first. As he explained to me in an interview: "Servant leadership is at the core of all of our leadership work. It makes clear from the get-go that our No. 1 responsibility as leaders is to serve the organization, not the other way around. It sets the tone we want throughout the organization -- that is one of service, of giving, not of expecting to get something in the short term."

In the book, Ari goes into detail about how "partners serve managers, managers serve front-line staff, and front-line staff serve our guests, which means that the energy is flowing effectively out to our guests, instead of inwards towards the top of the 'org chart.' "

One of my favorite parts of the book is the recipe section. True to his roots, Ari is the author of a number of books about food, so it's natural that he adopts the recipe approach to leadership. [For foodies, there are some actual food recipes included.]

Let me share two important points related to servant leadership. Although it may seem obvious, responsibility for providing such leadership falls on the leader. He or she must provide the organization's vision, direct the staff, manage ethically, learn and teach, train others, and say "thank you."

That framework captures the essence of Zingerman's success -- start with a vision, but reinforce it through continuous personal and employee improvement. And never forget to acknowledge the efforts of people who help the business succeed.

Another key principle in the book is the so-called stewardship compact, which assigns roles for both leaders and employees. A leader must set and document performance expectations, provide resources, recognize and reward performance, and create an environment where people have enough autonomy to work effectively. In return, employees agree to deliver on expectations or "negotiate through agreement" alternative objectives.

But here's something more personal about Ari's leadership style that is relevant to the concept of servant leadership. His role at his restaurant is to "pour the water." As he says, "It really just started by me helping out on the floor at the Roadhouse [his restaurant] back in the early years after it opened. Pretty quickly I realized that it gave me a great way to actively help the staff, be hands on without being in the way, interact with guests, learn about our food and service quality, train quietly on shift, and gather a lot of information about what was happening in the market."

It also sends a powerful signal to employees: No job is below anyone's pay grade. After all, if the co-owner is a "water boy," everyone can do his or her share to contribute. That's what it takes for a leader to succeed.