Ken Blanchard has had an extraordinary impact on management theory and practice, and the lives of many. He has published 44 books, including The One Minute Manager, which sold 13 million copies. Situational Leadership theory has led the field for 40 years now (for a summary of the theory, see Harvey Schachter’s review). Blanchard spoke with editor-in-chief Paul Crookall.
Most management books are written for the private sector. How do you see your ideas applying to the public sector? Are any adjustments needed to our situation?
I’ve always questioned the value of having separate programs in business, public admin, hospital, hotel and education management, because there are more commonalities than differences in the leadership of those institutions. It is silly the way we divide them up. I think we should teach those commonalties and then have a separate course on specific applications for each of the areas.
Two thoughts. First, Peter Drucker said that people in the private and public sectors have a lot to learn from people in the non-profit sector, where they are dealing with a volunteer workforce. Why? Because we are in the age of the new knowledge workers, who have more allegiance to their discipline than to their organization. As a result, you need to manage public servants as if they were volunteers, the boss doesn’t have traditional control over people any more.
Second, I contend that profit is the applause you get from taking care of your customers and creating a motivating environment for your people. While the public sector doesn’t have a profit, you can gather data on motivation, work environment, and sound finances. In the public sector, achieving results for society is the applause you get.
Overall, I don’t think a lot of adjustment has to be made to what is written in my books: you need the right target (vision, values, goals), you have to treat your staff right, you have to treat your customers (the public) right, and you have to get the right kind of leadership. Do those four things, and you will have success.
What do you see as the biggest leadership hurdle that public service executives have to overcome? What is it that they’re not doing well that they should get better at?
There are two parts to leadership: vision/direction and implementation. The biggest problem in all organizations, and it’s worse in public administration, is leaders don’t have a clear vision and don’t provide clear direction. In my book Full Steam Ahead (co-authored with Jesse Stoner) we talked about having the right target. You have to decide what business you’re in (purpose), where you are going (a picture of the future), what values are going to guide you in your journey, and what you want people to focus on now (goals). The first part of leadership is the one that is goofed up the most. Since leadership is about going somewhere, then who we are, where we are going, what we stand for, and what we are trying to accomplish is what drives us. If your people don’t know where you’re going, your leadership doesn’t matter. So I think you need clear vision and direction in public administration.
The second part of leadership is implementation. So often we do that poorly too. My father was a career navy man, but then he retired early. When I asked him why, he told me, “I hate to say it, Ken, but I liked the wartime navy better than peacetime navy because in the war, we knew what we were doing and why we were there. In peacetime, nobody knew what our vision was.”
If you don’t have a clear vision and a set of values, that’s what happens in government. Most government mission statements put me to sleep, whereas it should be your rallying cry. For too many leaders, their job is making other people feel unimportant. And in our presidential election campaign, nobody is stating a vision for this country. They are just bickering and picking on each other.
Young professionals are telling us that while they enjoy government work, they are bothered by the high proportion of deadwood-people who just aren’t pulling their weight. In Leading at a Higher Level, you wrote that leaders tend to avoid dealing with this problem because it is emotionally charged and they don’t know how. In most cases, the problem has been going on for years, through a number of leaders. The performance has declined because of attitude and effort, or a refusal to gain new skills and approaches needed for the job. Nobody likes to be blamed, and, you observe, redirection works better than reprimands.
My belief is that people don’t get up in the morning and say, “how can I go to work and screw up.” I think people are deadwood because nobody has ever paid any attention to them. When I took over a university department, we had two professors everyone considered deadwood. But they both had all kinds of energy and skills they were using outside the university – in fact, one had his own real estate company on the side. I went to see each individually and said, “I’ve heard about your skills. What can I do to get you back, because I could really use you back on our team, we can’t make it by ourselves.” Nobody had ever talked to them like that. I think you need to stop labeling people as deadwood and reach out, say “what can I do to get you back into the game?”
Many public servants are risk-averse. Their performance tends to be muted as a result.
When you come upon someone who has a fear of taking risks, or fear of failure or punishment, don’t attack them, but reach out instead to help them. Consider it a form of ministry. Come at them with a servant heart. Say, “I sense for some reason you’re very afraid of this environment, what could I do to make this a safe place for you? I’m willing to do what I need to do to enhance your contribution.” Just ask, “what can I do to help you?” I don’t think people want to live in fear.
I wrote Whale Done: the power of positive relationships, to help people understand that you don’t have to punish people to get performance. I have learned there are three things that are most important here. First, you have to build trust – convince people that you mean them no harm. Second, you have to accentuate the positive – catch people doing things right. And third, if something goes wrong, don’t punish people; just redirect their efforts back on track.
That’s what you can do if you are a manager. If you are not in charge, and you want to work in a less fearful environment, you need to make some choices. You can leave. You can make friends with those in power – don’t attack them, but reach out, help them understand. Consider it a form of ministry. And don’t be fearful. Ask, “what would I do if I had no fear?” Then do it.
Increasingly, we are working in teams, collaborating, networking. But we grew up in silos and we’re probably still going to need silos forever for accountability reasons to report to the cabinet minister responsible. How do you see that people can be more effective at networking and collaborating in a hierarchical silo structure?
We’ve been dealing with silos in our own company. First, how we really deal with silos is we’ve decided to put people in cross-functional teams so that every team will have somebody from shipping, somebody from product development, from accounting, from sales and marketing and the like. Together, they can attack problems, unencumbered by silos. At the same time, they are still members of their functional team, like finance or marketing, as their “homeroom.”
You may never break down the silos. But if there’s some way, ge