The ServiceMaster Story

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Excerpt from Chapter 1, The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating the Tension between People and Profit by Albert M. Erisman, copyright 2020 by Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dave Aldridge had earned his MBA degree, and was working as a manager at ServiceMaster. Like other leaders, he participated in We Serve days, during which senior company leaders worked as front-line employees to experience the physical and emotional experiences of those they led.

The hospital was opening a new wing, and I was helping to prepare the birthing suites. I was on my hands and knees cleaning baseboards. An excited group of nurses who would be serving in this new area walked through. As they walked by, I looked up and said “hello,” and no one responded. I wanted to cry out, “Hey, I have my MBA, and my wife is a nurse!” But the reality was, no one cared or thought I was worth acknowledging.

How did this service help Dave and other such leaders, and why would ServiceMaster require this of its executives? For many companies, managing labor-intensive work is simply a cost issue. ServiceMaster, however, wanted those who were leading people to understand firsthand what the work was like and how it felt to be treated as if they were invisible. It shaped their management.

Dave went on to say of this experience, “I have learned about the ‘heart’ of our business and about the feelings and emotions of the routine and mundane that are often involved in serving others.” This was not just a lesson in humility but was deeply rooted in what the company was trying to do.

In addition to knowing what this kind of service work is like, the company researched how to create a better work environment. It is rare that a company like this has a research department, but ServiceMaster wanted to find the best techniques for performing tasks and the best tools for the jobs.

The company also wanted to support its employees in finding meaning and purpose in their work. At the hospitals, for example, they would bring doctors and nurses in to talk with their service workers, helping them to see the connection between their cleaning work and the health of the patient.

Equally unexpected is James Heskett’s story. In the mid-1990s, he was a Harvard professor, visiting ServiceMaster in preparation for writing a case study on the company. He wrote:

At one Board meeting, the case writer observed Chairman Pollard, having spilled coffee on the boardroom carpet prior to the meeting, down on his hands and knees cleaning up the mess with chemicals brought from the laboratory. Just as surprising, directors in conversation over their continental breakfast hardly appeared to notice. It was the ordinary or expected thing at ServiceMaster for a leader to be serving.

From early in the company’s history, successive leaders laid out what they thought was the right way to run a business. They believed strongly enough in this mission that they were not distracted by short-term pressures. That started with seeking to understand both the dignity of the workers and the dignity of the work they did. This included servant leadership. Heskett, who wrote extensively on the service industry, said that ServiceMaster “has broken the cycle of  failure, and has basically reengineered jobs, provided training to people, and attempted to deliver a level of self-esteem that many workers have never had in the past.”

To be clear, early ServiceMaster leaders did not set out to “break the cycle of failure” in the service industry. The foundation, laid early in the formation of the company, was more simply to value the people because it was the right thing to do. While achieving these results in the service industry is unprecedented, it is clear that what ServiceMaster accomplished is not limited to this industry. When people are part of a company that recognizes each employee as a person, rather than a unit of production, they respond positively. Supporting meaning and purpose for the employee brings ownership and passion to the work, which results in greater customer satisfaction. The lessons from this story can offer valuable insight for any business.

This book traces the history, challenges, and the developing understanding of what it is to run a company rooted in the value of the individual worker. Each leader built on what the previous leaders had done, adapting the company along the way. As the company grew from a few people working from a home office in 1929 to a $6 billion global, publicly traded company by 2000, each leader refined and sharpened what had come before. They pushed back on one another and worked collaboratively. The results, by many measures, were astounding.

Along the way, in 1985 and 1995, ServiceMaster was honored by Fortune magazine as the number one service company in the United States. In 1998, it was recognized as one of the twenty most respected companies in the world by the Financial Times. Its third CEO, Ken Wessner, was elected to the Health Care Hall of Fame—the ultimate in customer recognition – for his leadership in the housekeeping work ServiceMaster provided for hospitals. For a long period of time, the company set a target of promoting 20 percent of their front-line workers to leadership positions. In 1988 and 2000, Harvard Business School created two case studies about the company.

Between 1970 and 1999, the company experienced growth in revenue and profit every quarter and every year – which was the result of many decisions and details coming together to create this success. Understanding how this accomplishment worked requires understanding the details that matter, but there is a big picture conclusion. The success of these leaders was rooted in a set of principles that centered on serving God in the marketplace, on integrity, and on the dignity and worth of every service worker and the work that person performed. The leaders of this era saw their work as more than a job or a stepping-stone to the next position; they saw it as a mission and a passion, and a response to a deeply held belief.

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