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Progressing from Chief Executive to Chief Servant – a Leader’s Journey

Chief Servant

“My job title confuses the life out of people, particularly banks and finance companies”, says Jacob Kajavala. He is the Chief Servant of his companies. Jacob owns and leads a large forest contracting company (Kajavala Forestry Ltd) based in Kawerau. He recently founded Ngā Mahi Rail, a company specialising in the building and maintenance of railway corridors. And for something different, he also founded and owns an international surf brand, Switchkites, sold in 140 countries.

This is one man’s view of what genuine leadership looks like and what effective leadership can yield. Jacob recently shared his story with the Whakatāne forum of the Institute of Directors.

Twenty years into his KFL tenure, Jacob had an epiphany. He had already achieved an industry leadership position through a focus on values and Lean manufacturing principles. If the business wanted another 20 years of success, he’d better get out of the way. Discontinuing all roles with ‘manager’ in the title, he became the Chief Servant, where his role is not to set the direction, the pace, or the tone, but to inspire and support.

The commercial purpose of the business has not changed. Like all other businesses, it is a vehicle to provide income and value for the stakeholders. But instead of the commercial outcomes being the primary focus, Jacob has reoriented his companies around the work (the mahi) and the workers. His only strategy input is: “Better”. “If the work is simple”, he says, “the work will be done well, and that will make the customers happy, and the outcome is commercial success”. The Chief Servant’s role is therefore to inspire the workers to make improvements to the work, and to support them by removing barriers and obstacles. He invests heavily into his staff, in training and multi-skilling; he even engaged a life coach his workers can access.

And before you judge this and dismiss the approach as ‘new-age, woke or misguided’ look at the results. KFL consistently outperforms their industry peers – the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it sure tastes good for the stakeholders of KFL.

Says Jacob: “It’s a big experiment, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun”.

Thank you, Laura Gaveika and Liddy Bakker of the Bay of Plenty committee of the IoD for organising the event, and thank you mayor Judy Turner and the Whakatāne District Council for providing the venue. Ngā mihi Jacob, for sharing your story.

 

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People