“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

When I talk to leaders about what differentiates their organizations the thing I hear most often is service. It reminds me of something Margaret Thatcher once said: “If you have to tell people you’re a lady, you’re probably not.” Don’t get me wrong, some of these organizations provide great service but if every organization who proclaimed it, consistently lived it, for one it wouldn’t be a differentiator, and two, we’d be living in a perfect world.

Of course service is an essential organizational strategy. Just think about the last time you decided to stop doing business with a person or company. For two thirds of people the reason is poor service. With something as seemingly small as failing to return my call, whether you mean it or not, the subtext is: “You’re not important.” This generates social pain. Researchers have found that social pain registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain. It doesn’t just feel like a slap in the face, according to the brain, it is! Shoppers spend on average 10% more when they’re greeted by a smiling helper because that smile communicates the one thing we all want to feel: “You’re important.” Every purchase is in part a purchase of respect.


My uncle is a small town GP and he has a simple formula for providing great service to his patients that I like to share with my audiences. He calls it his 3 A’s:

Be Able: competence is nonnegotiable.

Be Amiable: Excellent ability doesn’t replace an excellent approach. The number one factor determining patients’ self-reports of recovery is their doctors’ bedside manner. I would say the same figure applies to our customer’s satisfaction with our products. It’s not just the medicine it’s the way we administer it.

Be Available: Show up. If I can’t get hold of you it doesn’t matter how nice you are I’m going to look for someone who can stop the pain now.

But true service is more than a three-point checklist; it’s a way of life. What I recently discovered is that like most things, it’s much easier to say than to do.


I was brought in to present at an aeronautical company. Some of the countries’ top rocket scientists were being recognized for excellence. The CEO wanted a message that would remind them that no matter how brilliant a single individual was, we only rocket to true greatness when we serve. I started off sharing research by Harvard Professor, Shawn Achor, showing that people who pick up slack for their coworkers, organize social activities and generally serve beyond their job description are ten times more engaged. That means they’re happier and having more fun. As Mark Twain said: “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer somebody else up.”

I continued: “Service isn’t the job you do for a wage. It’s not what you have to do; it’s what you do beyond. This is part of what makes it satisfying; it’s a freely chosen act of kindness. But if you don’t want to serve people because you don’t like people, serve people because you like yourself. High-servers are 40% more likely to get promoted in the next two years. Want to get more? Give more. Don’t you just love that expression – ‘that’s not my job!’ No, but it could be your opportunity.”

The event finished late into the night. As I was about to leave I noticed my client beginning to dismantle one of about twenty-five corporate banners. I asked if she needed a hand, fully expecting her to decline the offer and wave me off with thanks for a great event. “That would be great,” she replied, “you can start with those five at the back and take them out to the van outside.” I tried to suppress my surprise and disappointment. It was at least an hour drive home, I had an early flight the next morning and then the words I had parodied earlier popped into my head: “That’s not my job”. I know, I know, call me a hypocrite. Yes, it is easer to say than to do.


I loosened my tie, rolled up my sleeves and got to work with a few others. After I got over the initial shock of having to actually follow my own advice, a strange thing happened: I started enjoying myself. Yes, it was good to be pulling my weight with a team, to receive their smiling thanks, but it was also fun to do be doing something I don’t often do: lift and carry, in the middle of the night under a starry sky. Then there was sitting together afterwards to eat a late night desert while getting to know what it’s like to work with actual rocket scientists. That would have been more than enough but getting a note of thanks a week later made that tiny act of service a true gift … to me!

I’m not sure that service comes naturally to us all. A more basic impulse may be to take before we give, to serve ourselves before we serve others. What I’ve realized is that serving others is the best way to serve our selves, even if it’s easier to say than to do!

“Justin really made his presentation relevant to our organization. This was the best guest speaker engagement we’ve had in ten years.”
Dirk Eksteen, Executive Director, Bytes Managed Solutions