Striving to serve, from the top down

Bosses working for their employees? William Knecht suggests it's a business method that gets results.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Warren Tinsley glanced down and wiggled his bare toes, now covered by a wet washcloth and the hand of a company president.
The crowd was squirming a few seconds ago, watching as the 14-year-old Columbus boy tentatively tugged at the laces of his black sneakers and pulled out his right foot.
Now the audience was hushed as William Knecht, president of Grove City, Pa.-based Wendell August Forge, knelt down and gingerly wiped Warren's feet.
"You can treat the needs of people with the dignity and respect you give the bottom line," Knecht said after standing up, beige washcloth still gripped in his left hand. The bottom line isn't an affliction, he said, but "it's evil when the needs of people get sacrificed."
Trim and dark-haired with leisurely mannerisms, Knecht threw out conventional techniques to bring his business philosophy to the 70 or so people attending this Ohio Business Week keynote speech Wednesday at Youngstown State University.
His focus: Delicately blending ideas from religious practices and money management, peppered with the occasional "y'all," Knecht cited Jesus and Starbucks founder Howard Schultz as gurus of the idea that people matter.
"People matter" is an overlooked management concept, the 35-year-old Boardman resident told the audience. Too often, businesses see the common man as a cog in the machine, a means to an end.
But the Bible portrays Jesus -- whom Knecht called the ultimate leadership role model, to a smattering of applause -- as a man who put the good of his followers before his own, exemplified by actions such as washing their feet. Schultz, whose father was a diaper delivery man, wrote that this principle should apply to modern corporations, Knecht said.
"We can go about work and business as the status quo," Knecht told the group of high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. "We can treat the bottom line as all-important. Or, we can band together and make a difference."
Into practice: He implored the group, assembled for a week of business and leadership seminars, to assess the needs of their employees. Providing health care and an appropriate pay scale were two of many methods to meet employee needs, Knecht said.
"As a leader, I'm not going to ask what people can do for me to pad my bank account. ... But what I'm asking is, what can I do for the people God entrusted to me?"
He paused, glancing at the quiet audience members.
"It'll set off a spark," he said. "Maybe it'll be a small spark, but it'll touch the world. Because there's one constant in the world today, and that's business."
He received a standing ovation.

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