How does a company that started in 1929, by a former minor league baseball player with an eighth grade education, as a door-to-door moth-proofing provider, develop into an industry leading brand? Founder Marion Wade was able to grow his service business from its meager origins in Chicago, Illinois, to an international organization grossing over two billion dollars annually in 2019. Author Albert Erisman masterfully digs into the foundational principles that contributed to the 90 plus years of exponential growth as property restoration industry leaders. His book, The ServiceMaster Story, sets out to demonstrate how early leadership navigated the tension between people and profit as well as the unique role that faith played in those formative years of the organization. Personal and professional development starts with the right mindset and habits, so it was encouraging to read about the leadership distinctives from this industry giant.    

Distinctive #1 - The shingles on a roof mindset of leadership

Marion Wade built his company by seizing an opportunity to develop and provide a product, which he called Fumakill, that was better than his moth-proofing competitors. Marion had to perform the awkward dance that so many entrepreneurs are familiar with. He was wearing all of the hats - selling, serving, and adapting his invention. When he was selling, he wasn’t producing. When he was producing he wasn’t developing the product. Even though he was losing sales to perform hands-on research and development, he was sure his investment would be worth it. Mr. Wade also began to notice a value of the work itself, not just how he did the work, which would become a foundational principle as he brought in talent to help him build his company. Servant leadership was a hallmark; the ServiceMaster code was known as shingles on a roof whereby leaders worked together to fully utilize each other's skills.   

Marion had definite ideas on the role of his faith in how he treated people as well as how he conducted business. While this is said by many, Wade took great care to hold himself and the four preceding generations of executive leaders to these shared values. Marion was the starter shingle for the leadership dynamic, and those who followed him would be overlapping and complementary “shingles”. Co-incidentally his first hire came at a time when his business stumbled into an opportunity to integrate a new service line, fire damage restoration, which would become a capstone division for the emerging brand. When Wade made the key decision of onboarding Ken Hansen, the job description he provided outlined a rough yet vision forward process: “You start to learn the business by going out on production jobs. Then you can move into sales. This experience will equip you for real leadership. After that, you can start where you are needed most.” 

Distinctive #2 - The six weeks on the front lines habit of leadership 

As ServiceMaster grew, each person in a position of leadership would come to embrace their predecessors as key contributors whom they honored and from whom they sought ongoing counsel. This demonstration of respect for each other and their shared values carried over into how they treated their employees. Even as an owner in a growing company, Mr. Wade regularly participated in the work that his teams provided. One day a former colleague came by a jobsite where Marion was on his knees scrubbing away and offered him a well paying director of sales training position with his company stating, “You could be making many times more than whatever you’re earning now and have a job with some dignity.” Conversely, the experience is further engrained in Marion’s resolve that executives should engage in the cleaning work of the company to understand both the work and the response workers often receive when doing manual labor. Wade would say, “A job only has as much dignity as the man gives it.” 

Throughout the early years and through several layers of leadership, this core value was held in high regard and practiced from top-to-bottom in the organization. All of the four executives at the helm of ServiceMaster participated in at least a six week field training to acquaint themselves with the work, the workers, and the organization. Like Undercover Boss, the executives would perform the work that front line employees delivered on a daily basis, only they had no disguises. Wade and his predecessors believed in the value of their people and the work that the organization did. Bill Pollard shared his perspective that, “People are the subject of work, not the object of it.” 

Distinctive #3 - Taking care of your employees as a leader 

This book opens two quotes from Marion Wade that all persons in a position of leadership should acquaint themselves with:

“Don’t expect to build a super company with super people. You must build a great company with ordinary people.” 

It is interesting how many companies are founded by pioneers who then develop their organization to a point that if they walked through the door they would not qualify for employment. While procedures and standards are part of the maturation process, these should not be to the exclusion of recognizing the value that any individual can bring to the team. ServiceMaster placed a high emphasis on training and leadership development; what many refer to as soft skills today. Ken Wessner noted, “Training is not so much about what we want people to do, but rather what we want people to be.” Those who wanted to grow their careers in the organization needed to develop their technical skills, but they also had to understand the commitment to servant leadership. Aspiring leaders saw these principles in the examples of their executive leadership team through overlapping shingles and the six weeks on the front lines, whereby they engaged with and recognized the value of their team members - 

“If you don’t live it, you don’t believe it.” 

Erisman’s subtitle is Navigating the Tension Between People and Profit. We shared a wonderful opportunity to discuss this topic together in greater detail on The DYOJO Podcast Episode 49. Working from Pollard’s quote, which we mentioned earlier, Al discussed how ServiceMaster did a good job of rightly viewing profits as an essential means, but not the goal or end. As Don Flow phrases it, “Blood is like profit - necessary to live, but not the reason for living.” While the first five executive leaders were not perfect in every instance of maintaining their shared vision and values, their common mindset and habits helped to keep them accountable. In describing integrity, the author notes that, “The best definition is wholeness - that is, when a person is the same in any situation.” While some readers may not share the faith claims of Marion Wade and the early leaders, those who conduct business intentionally can certainly identify with the struggle to live out their values in all facets of life and business.