By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner
We just celebrated the birth of our country and its independence. Many of those celebrations were probably consistent with the past – picnics, barbecues, neighborhood gatherings, block parties, beach parties. They were also uniquely different this year because many of us took our first big steps towards coming out of our “Covid Caves”. We are beginning to feel comfortable again by getting together without consideration of “social distancing”. We are replacing our Zoom screens with real person-to-person interaction. We are gathering again in personal, professional, and social communities.
As begin to meet again in real face-to-face groups, I thought about the concept of stewardship. I cannot prove my point with scientific evidence, but I have a suspicion that during the past twenty months or so as we “socially distanced”, we may have let our responsibility to be good stewards in our professional and personal lives slip a bit. Bear with me as I revisit this topic which I wrote about in a column many years ago.
During my fresh-out-of-college job interview with Arthur Andersen, a very senior partner introduced me to the concept of stewardship. It was a new concept to me, and one that I really had never given much thought. At the time, I associated the term with how to conduct myself in the circle of my family, or beyond that with the concept of volunteerism. I never focused on the fact that stewardship must be part of the fabric of all organizations for them to be successful.
The definition of stewardship that senior partner gave me was simple and straightforward. It has stuck with me throughout my entire career, throughout my life. “Stewardship means it is my responsibility to make this a better place for the people that follow me because those ahead of me made it a great place for me.”
Every organized group is brought together for a common purpose—to achieve a common goal. I believe that one common characteristic that every organization must have to achieve its goal is that of stewardship. And the concept applies to all members of each organization—whether they are labeled as leaders, executives, management, staff, or workers. Everyone needs to be a good steward for the organization to achieve its peak level of performance.
Ideally, everyone should act like a steward regardless of their title within an organization. Most, if not all, of you are leaders at some level in your organization. Whether you are leading a project team, a department, a division, or a company—you are a leader. As a leader, you should accept your responsibility not just to lead but to act as a steward as well. Here are some of my thoughts on the behaviors of a good steward.
No matter the role, I believe a good steward first and foremost cares about the people she works with, whether they are under her direct supervision or not. She considers their interest and development as important as her own. She understands their personal and professional goals and helps balance her needs with theirs and towards the success of the organization. She creates or contributes to an environment in which everyone works together towards a common goal.
Whether leading a team or participating as a member of a team, a good steward builds trust within the team. He acts with integrity and expects his teammates to do the same. He ensures that team members are not afraid to call each other out when they feel trust is breached.
A good steward maintains her own competence level to do her job. She regularly engages in her own development. She also works with her team members to ensure that they do the same. She helps secure the resources necessary to maintain those levels. And she works with her teammates to identify new competencies needed for continued success and to obtain the resources to get them.
If he is the leader of the organization, a good steward sets the vision and defines the organization’s mission. Below the leadership level, he learns the mission, understands it, and works with his team members to define how their part of the organization fits in to that mission to help achieve it. As a colleague of mine often states, each person must own their portion of the vision and the mission.
A good steward also understands the organization’s culture and owns her part of it. She encourages all her team members to do the same both directly and by her behavior. She understands that culture is what must take place, even when no one is looking. Shed ensures that her team members do the same.
As an organization or team leader, he makes certain that every member understands their role in the success of the team. He holds them accountable on a regular basis and rewards or admonishes them appropriately, depending on their actions and results. He does not do their job for them, but he teaches them and sees that they take responsibility for their actions. He leads by example, acknowledges responsibility for his own actions and remediates his own behavior when necessary. He does not “play favorites” and holds each of his team members accountable for their actions.
The good steward provides her team with the resources necessary to accomplish their objective. Then she gets out of the way and lets them do their work. She recognizes that the environment will constantly change and that course corrections will be required. She communicates regularly with her teammates so that they are comfortable with notifying her of changes in the environment and the need for course correction. She encourages their regular communication and feedback.
He is aware of the need for himself and his team members to have appropriate “down time” to recharge and redirect, as necessary. He makes sure that all team members feel that he is open to their communication and feedback about all issues that might affect the team’s performance—especially in periods when peak performance is required.
Coaching, developing, mentoring, teaching. These are all bywords for a great steward. She does all of these as she works with her team members. She is also willing to listen to them teach, develop, and instruct her when their expertise is greater than her own.
A good steward opens, and keeps open, the lines of communication with peers, colleagues, subordinates, and leaders above him. He monitors his own performance and acknowledges wins and losses. He recognizes achievements of others and rewards them as appropriate. He works with others to investigate failure and remediate as quickly as possible. He advises changes in course when they are necessary. He communicates, communicates again and then communicates more.
She evaluates her own performance and shares her successes and failure with her teammates. She recognizes their successes and helps them overcome the difficulty of failure. She provides regular feedback and feedforward communication so that others know how they fit into organization. She does not focus on blame for past mistakes but on how to correct those mistakes going forward. She learns from the failures that occur.
He takes care of his own physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and encourages his team members to do the same. He knows how to have fun; he knows when the team needs to “blow off steam”; he knows when to rest and he does.
The good steward encourages her team to continue their own self-development. She helps them access opportunities to do so through the organization. If necessary, she will help them seek outside assistance to continue their development.
And of course, good stewards think straight and talk straight.
Ironically, most of these characteristics are the same characteristics that define a good leader. In fact, any leadership list I would compile overlaps with this. That is because good leaders are stewards, and stewards are good leaders.
You can be a great steward in all phases of your life, whether it is within your family, your work, your community, your school, your church, or any organization in which you participate. If you do these things, if you behave in this fashion, I believe you will leave behind an organization, a community, a society, and an environment that is better than it was when you got there. You will be a good steward.
Hopefully, the most difficult stages of the Covid pandemic are behind us. As we return to some semblance of our previous lives, or as we adjust to a “new normal”, let us all be good stewards. Accept your personal responsibility to improve today for tomorrow. Strive to focus on yourselves in a manner that helps build the future for those who will succeed you. If you believe that practicing stewardship in your organization is important, you must make the effort to contribute. Otherwise, why are you there?
As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts and to learn from you. Please feel free to write me at Ed@ThinkStraightTalkStraight.com and share yours. And of course, my book, “Think Straight. Talk Straight.” is still available on www.Amazon.com.