If not you, then who?

February 28, 2012
in Leadership
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It’s hard explaining the role of a CEO to a nine-year-old. But that was the task put to First West CEO Launi Skinner by her daughter one rainy Vancouver weekend while the two were mixing up some cupcake batter in their kitchen.

Launi smiles as she reflects on her response. “Well, I paused for a moment and gave a straight honest answer: I listen a lot so I can help others a lot. That’s what I do. Sure, maybe I was simplifying it a bit, but in essence, that’s what I believe I’m here to do,” she says.

The forty-something international business veteran knows full-well the responsibility she carries—not just for guiding one of North America’s largest credit unions and its 1,400 team members but also for daily proving the trust of the more than 169,000 members who bank there.

With so much at stake, success isn’t about luck and circumstance, but about a leadership approach that defies the norm.

“I know a lot of people think the most important thing I do in a day is make some big decision, but as I told my daughter, it’s really the listening, serving and helping. Those five-minute hallway conversations that I have, or advancing an idea or concern from a front-line staff member that will help improve a member experience—those things inform and help with making the big decisions.”

Serving, helping, advocating—they are surprising things to hear from someone recently named one of Canada’s most powerful women, but Launi’s leadership approach is surprising in general.

While her level of achievement is typically associated with autocratic, top-down leadership, Launi describes herself as a “servant leader.” It’s disarming, and not a leadership competency you’ll often find in MBA curricula, but with a track-record like Launi’s, you can’t help wonder if she’s onto something.

“Early on in my career, I had a boss who was really influential in helping me understand my leadership style,” she says. “He told me that when people move into greater levels of responsibility, they often choose to lead through authority and power. ‘But Launi,’ he said. ‘The greatest leaders are those who serve and put others before themselves. Nothing is beneath them or too trivial. They continually ask themselves ‘if not you, then who?’”

“When he said that, I always thought, ‘yeah, it is me,’” says Launi. “Being a servant leader means asking yourself ‘what are you doing to help?’. As a leader, I could hide behind a title, I could complain and point fingers, I could rule with an iron fist—or I could help create, inspire and be a part of real change.”

In a high-stakes, competitive corporate environment, servant leadership itself seems a bit counterintuitive to achieving results. Yet Launi doesn’t see it as taking the backseat, deferring responsibility or settling for good enough. Rather, she sees her role as that of a facilitator—one whose primary purpose is enabling others to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

“Servant leadership isn’t about not expecting performance,” Launi says. “The teams I work with know that I set a high bar and I measure performance. But as a leader I have to put a little bit of heart in it and share the responsibility. It’s my role to create an environment where people can be their best.”

To that end, Launi makes it a priority to simply invest time—often unstructured—in the people she works with, trying to understand their values and goals. That investment requires consistent authenticity and being engaged with others in the moment.

Launi recalls how her leadership mentor did just that. “He had an ability—whether on stage or touring stores—to be 100 per cent engaged. He was excited about the things you did well, and he was candid and honest about the things you didn’t.”

Launi tries to bring this same authenticity to all of her interactions at First West. To her, it’s inseparable from being a servant leader. That kind of intentionality requires a lot of extra time and effort, but Launi believes it’s a valuable investment—and one that time and again achieves results. Even in challenging times.

In fact, for Launi, being an effective servant leader means being just as excited by the challenges as she is by the successes.

“You can have difficult conversations and make hard decisions and still be a servant leader,” she says. “I actually relish tough situations because of the potential that’s inherent in them.”

Launi believes tough feedback can be incredibly liberating for individuals when it’s delivered directly, but with compassion and respect.

“People need the right information to grow and if you’re not helping them grow, I’d argue you’re not leading effectively,” she says. “Tough decisions often propel individuals on to much greater things. I think you’re doing the best thing for the individual when you give feedback that might be uncomfortable in the short term.”

This kind of honesty is central to servant leadership, and it’s been transformative—for herself, her teams and for the organization. She’s been excited to see this others-first approach channel out to even the far reaches of the organization.

“Our people are truly invested in how we make a difference in the financial lives of our members. I really believe that’s because we’re reflecting, having tough conversations with ourselves and asking “if not you, then who?”

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