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Updated 29 Feb 2020

Top business leaders share their secrets

Serve your people, and they’ll serve your customers. That’s the secret to leadership, and top business owners know it. 

Nadine Todd, 04 July 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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Richard Branson has been quoted as saying, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients.” This is no longer a unique take on the role of leadership in an organisation, but it does frame the concept of servant leadership, and how successful businesses are embracing it.

Related: Developing leadership ability 

Richard Branson, Brand Pretorius and Sorbet founder Ian Fuhr all agree: The best businesses are led by servant leaders, not autocratic dictators. What type of leader are you?

Servant leadership

Ian Fuhr, founder of R600-million franchise Sorbet, has a simple analogy when it comes to leadership and customer service. “Leaders who expect their employees to grovel, serve them and be focused on their needs and wishes are creating an environment where each employee is so focused on their manager that their back (and other parts of their anatomy) is to the customer,” he says.

Instead, Sorbet embraces a ‘servant leadership’ model. Leaders are there to serve their employees, who in turn are there to serve customers. The company culture rewards what it has coined ‘citizens of Sorbet’, individuals who are completely focused on customer needs and how they can serve and improve customer lives. The opposite of this is the ‘I specialist’. Sorbet’s staff turnover is under 10% in an industry known for high employee turnover rates, and the group currently has 250 000 loyalty members. The servant leadership model certainly seems to be working.

Brand -Pretorius

There’s a difference between managing and leading people

This is a topic close to Brand Pretorius’ heart. As the former CEO of McCarthy Retail Limited, Pretorius is often credited with McCarthy’s turnaround. Promoted into the position from Toyota at a time when the group’s share price had fallen from R21 to 18c per share, and McCarthy had been declared technically insolvent, Pretorius’ leadership style could have been autocratic and unforgiving. Instead, he embraces the concept of the visionary leader.

“It’s your job to transmit inspiration,” he says. “You need to metaphorically switch on the lights. Once a quarter, put a question in your diary that asks: Why should people follow me? Reflect on it and never lose sight of the answer, during good times and tough times.”

Integral to this philosophy is his belief that teams are generally over managed and under led. “Both functions are critically important. Management is for effective execution; leadership is for vision. You must understand the difference though. Managers look at today. As a leader, you need to be obsessed with creating a better tomorrow for the good of all. Managers focus on process. As a leader, you need to focus on people. Direction, strategy, principles, and values. These are your core mandates. For everything else, you have a management team.”

Related: Leadership is not about you, but it’s all about you

Show trust and your employees will go above and beyond

Since its launch in 1999 Zappos has not only grown into one of the world’s largest online show stores, but it was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for an all-stock deal worth approximately $1.2 billion.

What’s Zappos’ secret to success? According to the company’s CEO, Tony Hsieh, the difference is customer service, which all comes down to company culture. From a leadership perspective, this means giving employees a high degree of trust.

For example, every Zappos employee has a discretionary fund that they can spend where they feel it is appropriate, as evidenced in this heart-warming story: When a woman called Zappos to return a pair of boots for her husband because he had died in a car accident, the call centre operator sent a flower delivery the following day, billing it to the company without checking with her supervisor.

Ask yourself

  • Does your style of leadership encourage employees to go that extra mile for every customer who walks through the door (or picks up the phone)?
  • Does your company embrace a culture of servant leadership, whereby its leaders serve its employees so that they can better serve your customers?


Culture begins at the top of an organisation, but is lived throughout the business. If you want employees to go above and beyond, give them the inspiration and latitude to do just that.

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Nadine Todd

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