Editor’s Note: This profile is an installment in the Healthy Leaders Project initiated by the WorldatWork Work-Life Advisory Council (WLAC). The project, launched in the January 2018 issue of Workspan, will run profiles on healthy leaders in the magazine throughout the year.
Margaret Serjak had thousands of employees reporting to her in each of her several senior executive positions with Verizon. But she always took the time to ask people about their families — and it benefited the business.
“The interest has to be genuine,” said Serjak, who recently retired early as the head of the telecom giant’s California operations. “I have a healthy, curious interest in people’s lives. You think twice before asking people to make certain commitments. You have to be cognizant of challenges people face.”
It’s all a part of building corporate culture and trust. “Show empathy, follow up and show character,” Serjak said. “It leads to employees trusting you. They feel they are part of a team. If you don’t build that trust, it’s hard to get them to follow you.”
In a giant corporation such as Verizon, that meant learning all aspects of the operation. Serjak even put middle managers in six-month rotations in different parts of the business and the country.
“I never wanted someone reporting to me who didn’t have a good idea of the business,” she said. “Each part of the business has a different culture. You have to be cognizant of the differences and, to be successful, be able to adapt. Groups like operations and sales are often at odds because they don’t understand each other’s challenges. It fosters teamwork. It was expensive, but it paid dividends.”
Serjak operated under the premise that every employee has a contribution to make. “At Verizon, 90% to 95% had the interest of the customer at heart.”
She fostered that environment by entering meetings assuming she was not the smartest person in the room. “I tried not to have people be scared, intimidated of me. If you don’t foster a relationship where people can say what matters, it will lead to key gaps in the business. I let people know I could help them and they could help me. I learned a lot of good information that way.”
The September installment of the Healthy Leader Project examines the importance of HR coaching in work-life offerings.
Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.