Servant Leadership in a Retail Environment

Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer and his colleagues believe in the importance of energy and the company culture. Maintaining cultural consistency and core values in the face of rapid growth and geographically dispersed operations is obviously a big challenge.

The company uses some formal media, such as a monthly newsletter called Clotheslines. The newsletter contains news about the company, new markets, and employees; and a list of outstanding sales achievements. There is a focus on the largest single sales, consistent with the company’s goal of increasing the amount of merchandise sold to each customer.

The Men’s Wearhouse also sends videos to its stores about six times a year. The videos, produced in-house and shown at store meetings, contain a combination of inspiration and information. The goal is to create entertaining presentations that emphasize specific merchandise and effective selling behaviors.

There is also great emphasis on personal contact. District and regional managers are expected to be in the stores regularly, helping to mentor and train store managers and wardrobe consultants. Senior leaders also travel to the stores regularly and meet employees at offsite training activities.

George Zimmer goes to about 30 Christmas parties during the months of November and December. There is incredible loyalty in the company to Zimmer and strong identification with him. Until quite recently, he knew every manager and virtually all the assistant managers by name.

One of the other ways the culture is built and maintained is through informal social contact outside work. In addition to the offsite training and meeting and the Christmas parties, the company encourages people in the stores to associate with each other informally outside work. Eric Lane, a senior executive, said:

“We pay for a lot of things. Baseball teams, bowling teams, softball teams. We have an ice hockey team but in fact I think the whole relationship thing really starts at the most basic level, which is, the people in the stores can be friends with their manager. The manager can be friends with the district manager. They socialize together. If the manager wanted to have a meeting at his house we would pay for that.”

The company expects leaders to help develop their people, not be bosses that order others around. There is an emphasis on democratizing the movement process and on having leaders serve the organization and the people in it. In the training materials for Suits University, the Men’s Wearhouse defines what it means by this concept of servant leadership:

Servant Leadership forces a change of perspective from the traditional Boss/Employee relationship to the Service Provider/Customer relationship. Servant Leadership says that as Men’s Wearhouse Managers, your customers are Sales Associates, Wardrobe Consultants, Tailors, and Store Managers/Assistant Managers. The people you manage and work with are YOUR customers, as well as Clients of the Store.

This article was reprinted with permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt of Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary Peopleby Charles A. O’Reilly III and Jeffrey Pfeffer. Copyright 2000 President and fellows of Harvard College; All Rights Reserved.