Harness The Power Of Service For Your Business

If asked what is the significance of Memorial Day, I suspect the average young American would answer: “It’s the beginning of summer”. Memorial Day is the national holiday on which we honor those who have died serving in the U.S. armed forces. The town in which I live puts a flag on the grave of each veteran on Memorial Day. I’m struck each year by the profusion of flags: most of the family burial plots include someone who has served.

Each flag designates a a veteran.

Most of the burial plots shown above belong to people who were born before 1950. Military service has declined dramatically in the U.S.: among men, who are 92% of veterans, over half over age 74 have served. Almost 40% of men aged 65–74 have served. In the 55–64 cohort the percentage drops sharply to 15% and continues to decline to only 5% for men aged 25–34. The shared experience of military service is disappearing from our society.

When I was a brand new Air Force lieutenant, a salty colonel took me down a few pegs for trying too hard to play the system for my own advantage. His point was: you are here to serve your country. This is not all about you. I resisted his message, but eventually came to appreciate the lesson. Gallup reports that the U.S. military enjoys the highest level of public confidence among all U.S. institutions included in its surveys. The ethic of mission, service, and teamwork that the military instills underpins this.

The last 20 years have brought a sharp decline in the cohesion of U.S. society. Its current state is characterized by heightened tribalism, government gridlock, post-truth politics, disengagement from the rest of the world, Wall Street pushing the global economy over the brink in its blinkered pursuit of profit, major “customer service” businesses (Wells Fargo, United Airlines) abusing customers and employees to make their numbers and Silicon Valley firms (e.g. Uber) manipulating people with algorithms while maniacally focused on “blitz scaling” to achieve the next $100 billion market cap.

However, most businesses depend on teamwork and customer relationships. A service ethic — serving on a team, for the customer — is an essential enabler of success. Successful service businesses, like Boston Consulting Group where I spent my journeyman years, teach the same lesson the Air Force taught: it’s not about you. You are there to make the client successful. Notwithstanding the sad stories that appear in the media, most veterans do well in later life. As a group, Veterans are better paid, better educated and more likely to be in marital relationship than non-veterans. Female veterans do particularly well.

Let Memorial Day be a reminder to all of us of the power of service. It powers most successful businesses, and it powers successful nations, too. Service ethic is built by leaders, who teach it directly to young staff and stitch it into the culture of their organizations. Better service is always a competitive advantage, particularly when other forms of advantage fade. And it can help businesses come back from blunders, as United Airlines is doing by doubling down on service to its best customers.

Small businesses rate high in the Gallup survey cited above, right below the U.S. military, probably because they are usually service-oriented with senior management close to the front lines. Notch up your efforts to instill a service ethic in your organization. It will help your business run smoothly, and that will help you truly enjoy the summer.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on June 2, 2017.

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