The servant-leadership community lost another great example and shepherd this week. Ken Melrose, former chairman and chief executive officer of The Toro Company, passed away Sunday May 3, 2020. Ken was a passionate advocate for servant-leadership at Toro and beyond. His book, “Making the Grass Greener on Your Side: A CEO’s Journey to Leading by Serving” cited examples of servant-leadership in action at Toro while teaching and encouraging its practice to readers.
I had the good fortune to meet Ken and hear him speak in 2014. I’ve always been grateful for his work in our movement and appreciated his example. In particular, when teaching the Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership™ I always use one of his stories to represent Empathy in practice. He would tell the story better than me. However, here is how I recall it…
Ken Melrose and Empathy at The Toro Company
The Toro Company produces a variety of products in the landscape maintenance field. As such, many items like lawnmowers and chainsaws can harm operators when mishandled. The industry practice whenever an operator was harmed or killed was to dispatch lawyers to quickly resolve the matter. The objective was to reach a financial settlement. Ken had his team take a different approach.
Instead of sending legal teams, Toro sent counselors. The objective was to help their customer in the greatest time of need. Counselors helped customers cope with disabilities and survivors cope with loss. It was an approach that focused on the direct stakeholder and not purely on the stockholder. However, this approach turned out to substantially reduce legal costs and lawsuits. Furthermore, instead of losing these users and their families, they found it made them lifelong customers.
That is empathy in action. That is servant-leadership.
Under Ken’s leadership, Toro implemented many more servant-leadership solutions. He also championed philanthropic endeavors at Toro and beyond. Ken’s leadership at Toro was not only a cultural success, but a financial success as well. When he took over as president in 1981, Toro was on the brink of bankruptcy. Ken led the company from $247 Million in sales to $1.7 Billion when he retired in 2005. However, as Ken said in his book, the financials were merely by-products of doing what was right:
Everyone has the potential to contribute to achieving the goals of the company. If you unleash that potential, market leadership and financial success will be natural by-products.
Thank you for your service and leadership, Ken. You will be greatly missed. We continue the advocacy for servant-leadership in your honor.