This week we sit down for a conversation about servant-leadership with Joel Manby. Joel has served as the CEO of a number of large organizations including SeaWorld, Saab, and  Herschend Enterprises — the largest family-owned entertainment company in the U.S. with popular brands such as the Harlem Globetrotters and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.

He was also featured on the hit TV show, Undercover Boss.

To learn more about Joel, visit

The views, information, or opinions expressed during this show are solely those of the participants involved and do not necessarily represent those of SouthState Bank and its employees. 


Intro: Helping community bankers grow themselves, their team, and their profits. This is “The Community Bank Podcast.”

Erik Bagwell: Welcome to “The Community Bank Podcast”. I’m Eric Bagwell, Director of sales and Marketing for the correspondent division at “SouthState Bank”. And joining me, Caleb Stevens, Caleb is in our business development area, produces this podcast, Caleb, what’s going on, man?

Caleb Stevens: Good to be back on the podcast, excited for this show with Joel Manby, he’s a Harvard Business School Graduate. He has run several big companies, and he’s all about investing in your culture and for a guy that went to Harvard business school and ran publicly traded companies it’s a unique perspective and so excited for folks to hear what he has to say.

Erik Bagwell: Absolutely. He’s got some cool ideas on defining your culture and what to do with your culture and how to make it better. He was also on the show Undercover Boss sounded like he was on the first episode of Undercover Boss.

Caleb Stevens: Yes, it sounded like he kind of took a risk on them, if you got a call like that today, you’d probably jump all over it. But it sounds like when he got that call, they were sort of like, what’s this show, is this going to be good for us and pretty crazy how that came about?

Erik Bagwell: He talks about being on that for a few minutes so it’s an interesting show. Joel’s a great guest and he’s written a book as well that’s why you want to go out and get it. Again, we thank everybody for listening to us, we get a lot of feedback that you guys are out there and listening and we appreciate it the podcast has grown and we enjoy doing it. So thanks for listening and let’s just go straight to the interview with Joel, thanks.

Caleb Stevens: Well, Joel, thanks for helping on “The Community Bank Podcast” today it’s great to be talking with you. How are you doing?

Joel Manby: I’m doing fantastic. Caleb is great to be here I look forward to it.

Caleb Stevens: I heard you speak several years ago to my father’s bank. And you talked all about servant leadership and that’s a great place to start this discussion. You’ve had the opportunity to lead several different organizations from Saab to Herschend Family Entertainment, which for folks that don’t know that’s stone, mountain, and Dollywood, and a lot of great entertainment experiences to SeaWorld, give us just a quick flyover of your business, careers of folks who’ve never heard of you can kind of know your backstory.

Joel Manby: Sure, Caleb, happy to do that. I’ll give you kind of the two-minute version or so, but I came out of business school got a master’s out east and went right with general motors out of their training program, and helped start up Saturn Corporation, which was a brand new startup brand at the time. And my huge break in my progression as a leader came while I was at Saturn. I was only 32 years old, but Saturn had a marginal car, but unbelievable marketing, unbelievable distribution network, some of the best creative ever in the auto industry where a Saab, which was another division of general motors had a fantastic car, but it terrible debt work and allows the marketing. So they specifically wanted a center in person. So because I was a very senior at Saturn, I was able to get the job as CEO of Saab North America.

I think at that time I was 34 so, it was very young within the GM system. Then that was my big kind of break to accelerate quickly, Saab was an unbelievable turnaround we don’t have time to go into that. Just a lot of fun, launching a brand new car and how we repositioned Saab in the US market eliminated all naturally aspirated engines went to all turbocharge high end, raise the prices, and carved out a niche that was successful in the U S. I then actually led an Amazon startup for only about a year and a half, because we got caught in the Dotcom implosion, but Jeff Bezos was on our board when 1999, you could go on Amazon and buy a car. We were ahead of our time you can be too far ahead of your time and get arrows in the back just like you can be too slow and we were just a little ahead of our time I still think it’s the right idea I’m surprised Amazon hasn’t gone back to it. But because we were forced to sell, I was looking at my options at that point and if you want to summarize what I’ve said so far, I kind of the first 20 years of my career through CEO, Saab, and then this Amazon startup, it was all a non-servant leadership experience. I would call that my non-servant leadership years and the auto industry is incredibly cutthroat it’s autocratic, it’s fear-based it does not bring out the best in people; at least as I experienced it, I don’t want to over-generalize. And this was 20 years ago, too, but it was a very different experience than the next 20 years of my career, which was all in the theme park industry.

And I was already on the Herschend Entertainment board as the CEO of Saab they wanted a marketing expert on their board. Well, when Jack Herschend, who was the only founder and CEO of the company had ever had, decided to step back and it is a total, miracle, he asked me to run the company and I came completely from a different industry to run it. And then I was there for 15 years and with the Herschend developed the whole servant leadership structure systems processes to prove that it worked versus, 15, 20 years in a non-servant leadership test. And then after 15 years with Herschend, I was recruited to go to SeaWorld; they were in a world of hurt, which is a whole story, probably a podcast unto itself. It was a huge turnaround and I had on my bucket list to be a public company CEO, in hindsight, I learned a lot, but it was not the experience I hoped it would be, and learned a ton in the process. But I resigned from SeaWorld in 18, so that would call it three and a half, almost four years ago now. So since then, I’ve been focused on educating and teaching about servant leadership because it’s so passionate in my soul I had 20 years, I was without it. And then I had this angst in my soul that was something was missing and then when I got to the 20 years in the theme park industry, I came alive even more so as a leader of what it can do and how it can transform organizations.

Caleb Stevens: So, it sounds like you spent the first 15, 20 years of your career learning, maybe how not to lead, learning things that you didn’t want in a board or a boss or a company culture. What was the shift there going into Herschend what sort of shifted your perspective and your frame of mind to say, wow, you can lead with care and with love?

Joel Manby: It was always in my soul, so to speak. I had a faith element as well that I felt, that if in my faith love was the number one requirement and so I always wanted to figure out how can you love other people and still create a for-profit profitable, successful enterprise I always had that goal in my soul. So I was always fighting it when I was in general motors I thought, you know this is okay, but it’s not maximizing what people can bring to the table. I saw so much wasted energy and passion and creativity that were just left on the table because of poor leadership. When I got to Herschend and I saw how special the parks were just as a board member, but when I got inside and saw how the owners supported it, and then how we then put systems in place.

It answered I would say an aching or a yearning that I had in my soul that there should be better leaders and there should be better leadership luckily, I had great mentorship in Herschend’s to show me how to do it. Unlikely, I had 20 years where I didn’t have that mentorship and I was kind of figuring it out for myself. So hopefully in this podcast, any of your listeners who may have struggled with the concept of servant leadership or thought it sounds good, but I’m not sure it works that I’m for that person because I was that way for a long time.

Erik Bagwell: Joel, tell us about your experience on the TV show, Undercover Boss. How’d that come about and what was it like to be in that role on that show?

Joel Manby: Sure Eric, I’m happy to, that is a perfect segue of the Herschend times. So in a nutshell, I’m going to answer your question. The Herschend’s had an amazing culture in Branson, Missouri, where the family was, but as you went out to other states and they made acquisitions, the culture was not as strong because they didn’t have systems and processes behind it. It was driven just by the Herschend themselves. And so I was brought in to figure out their culture, put a vernacular to it, and then spread it out and make all the properties like the ones in Branson. So we were looking for a way to kind of show how good Branson was and get to know the other parks better. I was already looking for something like that, but then CBS came to us and offered the Undercover Boss experience, right now, when you’re listening, you think about, wow, that would be an easy call, but this was the first season.

Nobody knew if it was going to be like 60 minutes, or Mike Wallace back in the day, God rest his soul but he would walk into somebody’s office and destroy their business from 60 minutes. So we had no idea and we took the chance, the board took the chance and it was an incredible experience for people I think it’s still on Netflix you can search Hulu, you can still find it on YouTube, but it’s a very emotional experience because it showed us how great our people were. But it also helped us with our culture because we established a foundation where the employees would give a dollar, then we would match it two to one and all that money would be used for the benefit of the employees. If they didn’t have health insurance, or this was back before Obama care, but we, we made sure everybody was covered.

So the program itself not only led to a great change like this foundation but there’s one other point and then I’ll go to the next question. I told you guys already how I had this angst in my soul I wanted better leadership and it wasn’t until I saw their Herschend’s that I had that mentor I needed. I thought it was just me, but when we are on Undercover Boss, Eric, we were inundated with thousands and thousands of texts and emails and Facebook, and all the people posting on our websites, people wanting leadership, like what they saw in that show, not me, but the people who had worked were working with me and it was just shocking. So that’s why I decided based on that to write the book, Love Works, and Love Works is a synopsis of the culture at Herschend where it was all about servant leadership. So that’s the story behind Undercover Boss and the writing of the book.

Erik Bagwell: I got a question so I had a friend that was on a golf show one time that aired on the golf channel for it was a gosh seven or eight-part series. It was one of the big breaks and he was on there. And that thing was like a three-day shoot and they just crank, it was like 24/7 filming the show. Is that what that was like on undercover?

Joel Manby: It was a kind 20 hour day it was a solid 14 to 16 of filming and then you’ve got makeup beforehand. And I think the thing that people didn’t know who we were because the show had not been out yet. So they were just filming I went to properties that I hadn’t visited much and the ones I visited a lot we found a way to interact with people like on night shift that didn’t know me. They didn’t know what was going on and but it was some long days, but well worth it.

Erik Bagwell: There’s a lot more to a TV show than you know until you either talk to somebody or beyond, so.

Joel Manby: I will tell you at the beginning long story short, the producer had a political agenda and it was not to make me look bad and the company looks bad, which that’s not surprising. But what surprised me is the efforts they went to, they would ask the people, very misleading questions they weren’t always honest let’s put it that way. And after the first day of that, I took her out to dinner and just said, I’m done if you don’t straighten this up and she said, well, you have a contract and I said, well, so do you, but I’ll do reality, but I’m not going to allow you to force a reality that’s not there. And so we had to have a little discussion, but after that, it went very smoothly.

Caleb Stevens: Well, let’s talk about; you mentioned your book Love works well. What was the impetus behind that book and what are you trying to communicate in that book?

Joel Manby: Well, the impetus is what I already said about just the huge outcry from 20 million people who saw it Undercover Boss program and we were very fortunate because it followed the NCAA quarterfinals. So, they kind of rolled right in, from the kind of do North Carolina, right into Undercover Boss and so we were very fortunate a lot of people watched it. And anyone who’s listening to this or has any question or desire about servant leadership and wants to understand what it means and what the theory and philosophy is behind it and why it works. That’s what this book’s about it’s separated, we all have do goals, Eric, we all which are hitting your numbers, your sales volume, your margin targets, loan portfolio ratios, whatever they are everyone has those in America.

What not enough companies focus on is the B goals, which are what kind of leader do we want our leaders to be? And we can come back to that if you want but the whole book is about how do you define the B goals? I chose seven words in the book, which are based on first Corinthians, actually a Bible verse, but it’s called a gap, a love, and it’s love, the verb. It’s not loving the emotion that’s why people get freaked out by it, they hear love, and they think emotion. It’s not the Greeks and I go into this in the book, the Greeks actually have four words for love and we only have one in English so it’s very limited. So, the love I’m talking about is a gap it’s an absolute verb in is how you treat people so that’s what we’re talking about.

Caleb Stevens: And the do goals versus the big goals. I mean, I heard you speak on this several years ago, and it was funny that was right around the time I was going off to college. And every semester in college, I had this cork board in my dorm and I would have my do goals for that semester, makeup, whatever 4.0 GPA, get into this, become a leader in that, whatever the goals were. And then there were the big goals what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of character do I want to have to grow in me?

Talk more about that because I think that’s important because a lot of times, I mean, we’re bankers, Joel, we have strategy meetings and to your point, we’re talking about how much we’re going to grow loans, what are we going to do in our securities portfolio? What are we going to target for a ROA? We’re always thinking strategy, big picture in those terms but seldom, do we talk about what kind of character are we growing in our leaders? What kind of culture do we want to have? Talk more about why that’s important because I think the pushback could be, well, Joel, how in the world do you measure that? How does that impact my bottom line? And you’ve led organizations and you’ve been responsible for big balance sheets and big P and L’s and shareholders that are wanting to return. So talk about how those things go together.

Joel Manby: Well, that’s a very good question as the packed with a lot of different angles, I’m going to do a couple different, I want to start at a high level first to your question about we’re bankers and all of us are focused on the numbers. We’ve got to hit the numbers well; all leaders have to hit the numbers. And I would argue though that the true art of leadership is the intersection of three different circles and one circle, the financial results, and too many people focus only on that circle. The other circle is the employee scores or call it engagement scores, how are your employees doing? And then the third is how your customer is doing? Are they happy? Are they turning over? What’s your customer score? And where those three intersect that’s the difficulty and the art of leadership.

Frankly, any fool can come in and increase the performance of one of those circles, and you can bankrupt your organization doing any of the three, give employees too much or customers too much, or even the CFO too much. So, that’s the first point I would make is this mentality that it’s just only the financial result is a very short-term way of thinking and I think true long-term leadership has to maximize those three. And I think it will lead to also the best financial only result because let’s face it if you have that balance going well, and you have great engagement scores, you’re going to have lower turnover, better people want to work for you. You can delegate more to them you can scale more on the customer side, the same thing so I would argue that you got to focus on all three circles for the best long-term value creation of the organization.

The second main thing I want to address in your question is that people do see culture as soft, unfortunately. I don’t agree with that positioning of it I have led 20 years, plus not caring as much about it in 20 years, plus caring a lot about culture. I think it’s more difficult to lead in certain leadership because of the balance of those three circles than just worrying about the financial performance. So I think it’s a more difficult way to lead us to a higher calling, but also the measurement piece this the next book I’m working on it’s called the Five Steps to Culture Transformation, because most organizations stop at defining what the values are and they stop short of all the other steps, like teaching it, measuring it to your point. It can be measured, it’s subjective and it’s not perfect, but we still measured whether people were behaving to those seven words or not, and then reinforcing it over and over again through promotions and who gets rewarded. Those are all part of making it non-measurable to making it very measurable, very tight, and frankly, when I was at SeaWorld and Herschend and I promise you this doesn’t usually happen in any organization I’ve seen, but we would spend just as much time reviewing the people numbers as we did review the financial numbers and that showed you our seriousness to the culture and why it was so important. So hopefully that helps, with a few high-level concepts on why people don’t do it more?

Caleb Stevens: Talk about the people numbers I bet a lot of listeners are curious, what are those people numbers? What does that look like? What were some of the things you would review?

Joel Many: So, it was basically an employee survey and we had these seven words that I mentioned, and I didn’t say them, but I’ll just give a couple of examples. The seven words are being patient kind, trusting, trustworthy, truthful, unselfish, dedicated, and forgiving. So for each of those words, we would have behaved so under patients, one would be praised in public and Monash and private. It would be not losing your temper in public or always doing it behind closed doors. They were certain behaviors that we wanted in our culture and it would be top-down and bottom up not only would I review my folks and the chairman would review me, but also the people working for us would rank us on those behaviors, those very specific behaviors.

And once you train what those words mean and what the behaviors mean, and what’s expected of you another one is don’t talk about people behind their back. In other words, you come into my office and you’re complaining about one of your workers, go work it out with them and if you can’t work it out with then both of you come back to my office. That’s just another behavior that we taught so we didn’t have this, let people deal with their issues. So that’s how we got the measurements and that’s how we created very strong metrics.

Caleb Stevens: Joel, there’s a lot of bank CEOs that listened to our podcast and one thing a lot of folks here in our office; we’ve all worked together for so long. And I think that’s the case in a lot of banks, there’s low turnover in a lot of banks for a banker out there, a CEO that wants to create an environment where their people feel cared for. They have a sense of purpose and they want to encourage their folks to give some advice to the CEO that is wanting to do that when he’s got 20 years and maybe that hasn’t always been the case because we’re all human. And maybe you’re trying to, as you said, maybe it’s a cultural transformation. Where does somebody start when they do want to make a difference and do what you’ve been saying?

Joel Manby: Well, first of all, if they have been together for a long time, they have no turnover and the numbers are working well. It sounds like they do have a good culture, because usually the identification unless and you start losing people, you don’t want to lose, or the financial results aren’t there because people aren’t motivated or what have you. I would say, first of all, belief in it is critical I am such a raving fanatic because I’ve not only done it as CEO four times but within those four CEO Stents, there were at least a dozen acquisitions of poor performing properties. And within almost like clockwork within about three years, you can do it much faster occasionally, but very rarely and it doesn’t usually take more in four years, but we’ve seen cultures transformed.

And so it starts with belief and it starts with understanding it’s going to take time but I also can say definitively that it works. The financial return will come once the culture is right because obviously, you attract better people if you attract better people, they’re brighter, hopefully, harder working. They can grow the business for you it’s easier to delegate to them, all the things that create the flywheel up, it starts with the belief. And the second thing is I kind of hit it quickly, but just to make it more definitive for your listeners, the first step is defining what you want the culture to be. Without that, as a complete waste of time, I heard I go into companies a lot, sometimes as a consultant or to try to help, and they talk about their culture, but it’s not written down and it’s not defined is that everybody has their interpretation of it, which is a recipe for disaster.

So that’s the first step, the second step is to teach yourself as the leader to others and the third step is to come up with a measurement of it. And you might want to let us sit for a year or two first before you start measuring it but at some point, it has to be measured. And then it has to be part of a very frequent review process as I said, that’s just as often as the financials and people may be disappointed in how far they get in a year, but there’ll be blown away by how far they get in three years by doing some of those steps I just mentioned.

Caleb Stevens: And how do you sort of balance getting feedback and maybe some consensus systems, some participation from your lower-level team members versus this is coming straight from the C-suite, the C-suite sort of saying, okay guys, here’s the vision, here are the values, here’s where we’re going sort of a top-down approach. Is there a balance there, a feeling like we want all of our team to feel a sense of ownership in this, that they’re part of it and they own it while at the same time the leaders ultimately making the final call, what does that sort of look like?

Joel Manby: That’s a great question; it’s an insightful question. I’ve seen it all over the map from a hand-me-down to very granular, almost too much at the frontline where it just took too long. My experience is a cross-functional team that represents everything within diversity, and it’s not just race or age it’s, whatever the issues are within the organization, I think getting as much diversity, new employees versus employees that have been with you for a long time. That just helps make sure you’re hearing the truth and but I think ultimately the CEO is never going to want to never should give up, making the ultimate call on what’s in and what’s out, but it’s very important to make people feel part of the process. And even as you start to roll it out to still be willing to listen for, let’s say 90 days to six months, that is kind of wet cement, so to speak, and be willing to change but once you lock in I would change them very rarely.

Caleb Stevens: Well, folks want to buy your book if they’re hearing this and they’re saying, wow, that’s something I want to dive deeper into. How can they learn more about you buy your book, engage with the resources that you’ve put out for leaders?

Joel Manby: Well, I appreciate that the best way is my website, which is They can also follow me on Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn three, the handles are just Joel Manby official, but if you Google them, they pop up. So that’s where they can buy the book there are blogs if they ever want to book me for any kind of engagement, whether it’s consulting or speaking, I still do some of that I enjoy it. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a company take it to the next level from a cultural standpoint I still get thrilled by it, I think it’s important for this country, so that’s why I do it, but that’s the answer to your question

Caleb Stevens: Fantastic we appreciate your time, your wisdom, and your insight, and thank you for joining us.

Joel Manby: Hey, thank you it was great. I appreciate it.


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