This CEO works for employees, not the other way around

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Rick Wardlaw says one of the most important leadership qualities is humility.

He embraces this ideal by adhering to what is called servant leadership. That means as CEO of Bank Independent in Sheffield, Ala., Wardlaw views his job as serving the other executives who report to him, rather than seeing the corner office as license to be demanding of others.

“I believe if you are going to spend a third of your life at work, you might as well make that a positive experience,” Wardlaw said. “Employees want to find significance in life, a connection to something bigger than themselves. We want a purpose and people deserve to be treated as human beings, not human doings.”

“If you treat your people well, they will treat customers well,” said Bank Independent's Rick Wardlaw. “It’s like a secret sauce.”
“If you treat your people well, they will treat customers well,” said Bank Independent's Rick Wardlaw. “It’s like a secret sauce.”

Wardlaw’s leadership style is among the reasons the $1.9 billion-asset Bank Independent made this year’s Best Banks to Work For list, at No. 21.

A number of banks throughout the industry, including several other Best Banks to Work For, are proponents of servant leadership, a phrase popularized by Robert Greenleaf, a management consultant, in his groundbreaking 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”

The philosophy essentially turns the organizational chart on its head and requires managers at every level to prioritize helping the employees who report to them. Employees who have the tools and support they need to succeed will, in turn, be more responsive to customers.

“If you treat your people well, they will treat customers well,” Wardlaw said. “It’s like a secret sauce.”

To ensure that they are are fostering a servant leadership culture, bank managers must undergo 360-degree reviews that include feedback from employees who report to them. Wardlaw is no exception to this, and he willingly opens himself up to criticism through the process.

Wardlaw is aware that, by his nature, he tends to be more focused on getting results than developing relationships. Those who evaluated him last year noticed this as well, and he was informed he needed to work more on showing a genuine interest in his colleagues’ lives outside the office.

As a result, Wardlaw, who noted that being evaluated in this manner can make one feel “vulnerable,” asked those around him to help point out opportunities to be more engaged with the bank’s employees on a personal level.

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“This year’s 360 showed I’ve made progress, but I still have a way to go,” Wardlaw said. “Having just received this year’s 360 evaluation gives me an opportunity to be better aware of how others are feeling in my interactions with them. I think my wife and kids are happy that’s been revealed as an improvement opportunity in my personal development.”

Wardlaw said he learned about servant leadership, though he didn’t always know that’s what it was called, from observing other supervisors during his career. He has been with Bank Independent for more than 20 years, joining the institution in 1999 as its chief financial officer.

“I could see people who exhibited servant leadership — and the ones that didn’t," Wardlaw said. "As I went through my career, I knew what kind of boss I wanted to be and what kind I didn’t want to be. When you get a culture that just feels right, it just makes work fun.”

For the philosophy to work, management has to actually live it rather than merely paying lip service to these ideas. Besides the 360-degree evaluations, Wardlaw accomplishes that by insisting that one of the bank’s four strategic initiatives is “guarding our values and enhancing our culture.”

Bank Independent also works to recruit and hire employees who are humble and are willing to put the needs of others above their own. To do that, prospective hires undergo a personality test and multiple rounds of interviews with different people from Bank Independent. Interviewers use a guide with questions designed to help better understand important character traits of the potential hire, including their motivations and their ability to be a team player.

Wardlaw noted that the servant leadership culture has been put to the test this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he said he believes Bank Independent passed.

“If the first thing we thought about was what are our financial results going to look like that would have reflected that the leadership team wasn’t thinking the right way,” Wardlaw said. “Instead, the first thing we thought about and ensured was that our team members were safe.”

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