Stewardship: Building Power without using Authority

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine, October 2006

The guiding model for effective management at Zingerman’s is what we call Servant Leadership, which details that leaders are obligated to provide great service to the organization and, more specifically, to the staff. Stewardship is one of two important approaches to making Servant Leadership effective. (The other is our Entrepreneurial Approach.) The concept for Stewardship is adapted from a highly recommended book of the same name by Peter Block.

Stewardship is of value to anyone interested in learning new and more effective approaches to leading their organization. It’s about building the ability to lead and get done what needs to be done, while exercising formal authority only as little as necessary.

In contrast to the typical top-down, command decision-making mode, Stewardship creates a partnership with the people we work with. At Zingerman’s, it is the model of management relationships—including both manager-to-staff and peer-to-peer—all the way through the organization.

Authority vs. Agreement
As managers or majority partners, we have the authority to act unilaterally, to pull rank in an emergency or crisis. This is an essential element of effective organizational life. As Peter Drucker writes in Management Challenges of the 21st Century, "Someone in the organization must have the authority to make the final decision. Without that authority, the organization could be paralyzed or unable to deal in a crisis situation."

As majority partners, Paul Saginaw and I hold the ultimate authority over the managing partners in our organization. Our commitment, though, is to work with them using a consensus rather than a command model. Similarly, as CEO, I hold formal ultimate authority over all organizational operating issues. But again, the commitment is to work, if at all possible, collaboratively, and by consensus with employees. This is equally true within each business. The managing partner holds authority over the managers, but attempts to operate first by gaining agreement rather than simply ordering things to get done. The higher up we move through the organizational chart, the more we attempt to use consensus as the operating model for Stewardship. Newly arrived staff members have the narrowest range of options and the least amount of room for negotiation.

The effectiveness of our authority is a lot like nuclear weapons—having them is a great deterrent but you don’t want to use them. While we can bomb people into submission, what’s left after the bombing is not pretty. The value of our authority is inversely related to the frequency with which we use it.

The Stewardship Compact 
The Stewardship Compact creates a framework within which we can make this model a reality. It expands on the approach we use in our training compact, taking it to a higher, more involved level of engagement. Here’s what it looks like.
Following are the key characteristics of effective Stewardship at work:

1. An Effective Exchange of Purpose
Old-style business leaders give staff members as little information as they have to. By contrast, Stewardship starts with sharing as much as we possibly can. One of the Servant Leader’s most critical responsibilities is to provide a clear vision of where we are headed. This is also the foundation of the Stewardship Compact, which compels us to offer clear expectations of the role and results that we expect of the individual(s) we work with.

It also requires us to take the time to explain why we have chosen the path we’re on. It’s important that they ask questions; the more confident they feel about our direction, the more likely they are to do a good job helping to get there. That does not mean that we blurt out whatever comes to mind, or that we dump all emotional reactions on the table. It means talking about why we’re seeking certain outcomes, how we think they’ll positively impact all involved, and how we arrived at the decision to ask for those results.

The "exchange" of purpose is a two-way street: it’s as important that we understand where staff members are headed as it is for them to know our intentions. We need to know what they value, what they hope to attain in the coming months and years, what their vision of greatness is for themselves, what role they would like to play in the organization. We now have the foundation for effective dialogue, negotiation and commitment to mutual success.

2. Emphasis on Performance Results
Working through the Stewardship Compact helps us to focus more on deliverable results, and less on intentions. Effort does not pay the bills. Stewardship emphasizes the importance of getting real results that deliver great food, great service, great financial performance to the organization and help provide the high-quality workplace we desire.

We are asking for bottom-line results and a commitment to attain them according to agreed-upon organizational norms. When we have agreement that these results will be delivered, we can offer more freedom to staff members to do the day-to-day, hour-to-hour work as they see fit. In return for this freedom, staff members must deliver the results.

3. Negotiating to Agreement 
Our "partners" in this Stewardship might decide that they don’t like the vision or don’t want to meet the expectations. In that case, we offer three options:

a) Propose an alternate vision and/or set of expectations and get us to buy into those.

b) Decide to overlook their concerns and actively commit to implementing what we’ve asked.

c) Decide that, based on this disagreement, they may choose to leave the organization.

Any of these are workable. All three acknowledge the power of the staff member to act as a partner and push him or her toward commitment to a course of action, as opposed to a more typical sense of sacrifice or helplessness.

A key element is that we’re asking the staff member to commit to taking the actions at hand, rather than the more typical "telling them what to do." To quote Peter Block, this means demonstrating, ". . . the willingness to give more choice to the people we serve. Not total control, just something more equal."

The people with whom we are negotiating may quickly agree to what we are proposing. Assuming that they’re sincere and believe that they have a good likelihood of success, there is nothing wrong with this. No need to negotiate when everyone’s already in agreement.

Yet we must accept that they could say no. After hearing our vision and expectations, they may opt to reject them. It’s the reality of modern management life. While many of us—me included—want total control, the reality is that everything is out of control; we merely have varying degrees of influence. Staff members can leave whenever they wish. While that may seem like a "bad" outcome, I’ve realized that it’s not. If someone is out of alignment with what we’re striving to accomplish, it’s in everyone’s best interest that they move on. We need to recognize the disconnect and move constructively forward on our separate paths.

More often though, the "no" will be partial; they might be uncomfortable with one or more elements of what we have put forth. Then, we carry on a positive negotiation in the belief that we can arrive at a set of mutually agreed upon expectations.

Our commitment is to continue to come back to the table until we get agreement. But don’t wait forever for this agreement. At some point, failure to make a commitment is in itself a decision by the staff member. We as leaders represent the needs of the organization and can use our authority to establish timeframes or boundaries within which an agreement must be reached.

Finally, there are situations where what we’re asking is not negotiable—perhaps it is an essential element of the work or a standard that others are already successfully attaining. We need to let our "partner" know we have no room to negotiate, and that we won’t be able to work with them if they cannot meet those expectations.

4. No Abdication
Remember: Not being an authoritarian "ruler" is not the same as simply "giving in." Working as partners does not mean automatically doing what others ask. Realistically, that can sometimes be quite a challenge; the people who work with us can, consciously or unconsciously, make it difficult to stand up for what’s needed, for our guiding values, or for what’s fiscally sound practice for the organization. To back off in the face of this challenge is poor leadership.

Our task is to constructively hold firm, to learn more about why they see things so differently, and then still to lead. As Peter Block says, "The difficult part is to maintain contact without control, in other words, to challenge difficult issues without always giving answers. Abdication in an organization almost never gets good results."

5. Freedom: You Can Make a Difference
Once we’ve negotiated the StewardshipCompact and the expected results, we give staff members a chance to design the actual work. Since they are committed to delivering results, we give them a lot more freedom than usual. They might choose to work from home, work late at night or early in the morning, meet with peers to gather information in person, on the phone or via email. As long as the method is ethically sound, respectful of the needs of others and gets the agreed-upon results, they have a lot of leeway. "Freedom" does not mean "no constructive criticism." Just as we welcome input from staff members about how we as leaders are doing our work, so too we hope that they will welcome feedback on how they might improve.

6. Conscious Commitment 
When we use Stewardship well, people are learning the difficult skills of negotiation, learning to make appropriate compromises and commitments. Committed and caring people are the type that we want to work with.

What’s the alternative to commitment? One option is action taken out of a sense of sacrifice. It’s the old, "I’ll do this for you now, but later you better take care of me" without defining and agreeing upon what "take care of me" means. Ironically, leaders are often relieved when staff members acquiesce and go along with our way of doing things. But this sort of passivity is likely to boomerang on us—the individual who has "sacrificed" for the organization is inevitably going to strike back later when their unspoken agenda has not been met. This strike may come in the form of anger, resentment, victimhood, or a combination of all three.

Another alternative is for people to act out of a sense of entitlement, the sense that they have something coming to them simply because they’re here. Our view is that nobody is entitled to much of anything except a shot at success and the expectation that we will honor the commitments we’ve made. And that when we mess up—which we all do regularly—we’ll handle our shortfalls with as much integrity as possible.

We understand that everyone has needs, dreams and desires—and we are strongly committed to helping achieve those. But to help fulfill those dreams, we are asking staff to first work to create a great organization. The emphasis is on conscious commitment. When people make choices, they act from personal strength. They own their decisions and don’t blame others. They are not victims.

When we have negotiated through to agreement, there’s no longer any place for helplessness or victim mentality. Common commitment means that all parties will support the plan at hand and each other en route. Block writes, "The central point (of Stewardship) is that if people want the freedom that partnership offers, the price of that freedom is to take personal accountability for the success and failure of our unit … When more than one person is involved, each shares full responsibility for the success or failure to attain the agreed-upon outcomes."

The Uncomfortable Factor
Stewardship is not easy to implement. It takes a real willingness to continue to talk when we want to walk away; an ability to keep negotiating when we want to just pull out our stick and hit people over the head. But when we do it well, we are helping to develop the sort of leaders we need to be successful. People who can tackle difficult discussions respectfully, who can gain commitment, not just command obedience.

The Stewardship model is very different from the have/have not relationships most are comfortable with. It will be uncomfortable for you and even more uncomfortable for your staff. But, ultimately, we will get good at it in the same way we improve at most anything—practice, practice and more practice.