Ken Blanchard on 40 Years of HR

Connex Staff |

Ken Blanchard was born in New Jersey and raised in New York. In 1982 he and his coauthor, Spencer Johnson, published the seminal management text The One Minute Manager, recounting the three techniques of an effective manager: One Minute Goals, One Minute Praisings, and One Minute Reprimands. A new edition revises the One Minute Reprimand to a One Minute Re-Direct, adapting to the rapid pace of change in the modern working environment where everyone must learn as they go.

That spirit of constant learning and invention infuses The Ken Blanchard Companies, founded in 1979 and headquartered in California. Blanchard employs over 300 people across the world, offering leadership training and development for managers who want to bring out the best in people. In 2020, Ken’s son, Scott, took the helm as president. Ken continues to send a daily message of hope and understanding to the company’s employees in his role as Chief Spiritual Officer.

Alongside The One Minute Manager, Ken’s writing career spans more than 65 published books. Now 82, he continues to write. His most recent book published this February, is Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. We find Ken Blanchard at home in San Diego in a handsome booklined study. He gets up momentarily to let his dog out of the room. The dog is called Joy, he says, after a friend told him the real joy in life is when you can forget about yourself - just like dogs help people to do.

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Connex: It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was reading The New One Minute Manager earlier today, on its 40th anniversary. It struck me that the biggest change in your thinking has been a shift from top-down people management to more of a participatory or facilitatory approach. Is that right?

Ken: We call it side-by-side management now, not top-down. It’s not about people wanting your job; they just want to be able to express their opinions and be part of the team rather than the hierarchy.

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Connex: I wonder how that fits into the situation we face now with hybrid work. How do the ideas of flat management structures and home-working intersect?

Ken: With some people working remotely, some coming in once in a while, and some in the workplace all the time, you’ve really got to be with your people. It’s not about them looking up the hierarchy - we’re all in this mess all together. It’s all about servant leadership: listening more than speaking, asking more than telling, supporting rather than demanding. Virtual meeting platforms like Zoom give leaders the capability to stay in touch with their people more often. You can schedule a weekly Zoom meeting without having to travel to get together, or if you have a problem you can call a quick Zoom meeting. It’s about staying in touch with people.

Connex: In this hybrid world, how should companies be thinking intentionally and purposefully about how to maintain or change their culture, particularly when two cultures come together, for example, through mergers?

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‘What are you doing that’s purposeful and intentional?’

Ken: The key words in this question are purposeful and intentional. What are you doing that’s purposeful and intentional? Because we’re all being impacted by the many dramatic changes that are going on. We really need to make sure everyone knows that times have changed and leadership needs to be done differently. So we need to reach out to people and let them know what we’re doing.

Our son, Scott, took over the presidency of The Ken Blanchard Companies two months before Covid. We teach leaders to share their leadership point of view with their people, which includes who impacted your life? What did you learn from them? What are your values? What does this mean in terms of what you expect from people? In his opening remarks to the company, Scott said: “Forthrightness is my number one value. I’m going to tell you what I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew.” For 83 weeks now, he’s been putting out a weekly email to everybody in the company, basically saying what he knows, what he doesn’t know, and what he wishes he knew, praising people, and keeping everyone informed. Because people really want to know they’re still part of the team, even though they might be remote.

Connex: It sounds like you’re advocating for quite radical transparency between leaders and workers there. Is that right?

Ken: Yes! If you act like you have all the answers now, people will know you don’t. I wrote a book with Colleen Barrett called Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success. Colleen Barrett became the president of Southwest Airlines after its founder, Herb Kelleher, stepped down. She said people admire your skills, but they really love your vulnerability. When you admit to your people that you don’t have all the answers, they don’t say, “Well, how come you don’t?” or, “How did she get that job?” They say, “Wow, it looks like we’re going to be a team.”

I think that’s really what’s important, because we’re all being impacted by this craziness. And it’s not going to be over right away. Effective change is when you involve your people. Do not do it to them, do it with them.

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‘People don’t leave great bosses’

Connex: How might that idea of doing with, not to, manifest at the moment?

Ken: One example would be Scott’s weekly emails to the company. People just love them. Then at least once a month, he has an open all-company meeting where people can come and ask him all kinds of questions in terms of what’s happening in the company and what they think about this or that.

I do a daily email message to the company. I got my title Chief Spiritual Officer when my wife, Margie, headed up the office of the future, a department studying what creates spirit in the workplace. I said, “That’s one of my jobs.” As Chief Spiritual Officer, I leave a message for everybody every day. I praise people for their good work, keep them informed of things, and then write what I happen to be thinking about.

Once I met a guy in an airport from New Zealand. I sent him some of my books and he sent me a message back that said, “Ken, the business you’re in is teaching people the power of love rather than the love of power.” I think that’s a really powerful concept in these times, because you can’t control everything. It’s got to be mutual and evolving.

Connex: How does that transpose when companies are really struggling? We’ve seen a drastic impact on people’s ability to hire the necessary staff.

Ken: In the beginning of Covid, we needed to do some downsizing of our own, because our business was down 40 to 50 percent. Slowly, we have been building back up, and that’s why I think that concept of transparency is really important: to really make sure you’re sharing with your people what’s going on from your standpoint as leaders, including what you need from them, how you’re going to communicate with them, and how important they are in the whole context. A lot of people are leaving companies, but what we have found is that people don’t leave great bosses or good companies. If they feel like they’re involved and they’re an important part of the scheme, they will hang around.


‘Catch people doing things right’

Connex: How can a company navigate the challenge of having part of its workforce on the frontline in factories, shops, and service roles, and part of its workforce, including leaders, in office-based jobs where they are now able to work from home?

Ken: That’s a really interesting one. We have a maintenance lead named Ricardo. He can’t do his job at home, of course, so he’s at the office all the time. When hybrid workers go to the office, they connect with him and tell him they appreciate his efforts. That’s a real morale booster. I have a new book coming out in February called Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust that I’m coauthoring with my colleague Randy Conley, who is one of the top experts on trust. We have a concept: the key to developing a great, healthy organization is to catch people doing things right. A lot of the time, when I have asked people how they know they’re doing a good job, they say: “Nobody has yelled at me lately. No news is good news.” Instead, we feel that it’s important to wander around and catch people doing things right, whether it’s on Zoom or face-to-face. The book has 26 simple truths about servant leadership and 26 simple truths about trust. People really like it because they can read one of the simple truths and go and talk with their people about it. It gives some context for good conversations. I think it’s interesting when I hear people saying, “We’re all in the same boat.” Actually, that’s not true. We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. Recognizing the different boats your people are in and reaching out to them is important. We offer a program on dealing with change. Some of the companies in our industry can come in and process map change to the nth degree. But how do you deal with the human case of managing change? You’ve got to give people information, you’ve got to deal with their personal concerns. That’s just a whole other level of dealing with change that helps people get through it. You just have to deal with their concerns one at a time.


‘Make priorities: Take your vacation. Spend time with family’

Connex: Recently, The Ken Blanchard Companies put out a fascinating piece of research on learning and development. The number one finding was that people felt overloaded, tired, and “too busy to learn.” Are there any short or long-term strategies leaders can use to help the workforce at this time?

Ken: One of the big ways to acknowledge and address people’s exhaustion is to help them understand why they have their job and what role they play in the company. And then ask: How can we help you? Would you like us to get you a coach or somebody to listen to you so you don’t burn out?Also, one of the things Scott emphasizes: “Take your vacation. Make sure you’re spending your weekends with your family. Don’t turn your back on what is really important.”

People used to ask the great Dallas Cowboys football coach, Tom Landry, how he was so calm on the sidelines. He told them he found it easy because he had his priorities in order: “First comes God, second comes my wife, third comes my family and fourth comes my job. So if I lose on a Sunday, I still have a lot left over.” That’s what we want to say to people: Your job is important, but you need to keep a good balance in your life.

Connex: That seems like an interesting approach. Plenty of companies out there have valued workers who gave everything to their careers and their jobs. And you’re saying, actually, we need to advocate for people to reevaluate the order of priorities in their lives. Is that right?

Ken: Yes. This approach gets really powerful when we really need people for a project, and they can say to their families: “Next week is going to be a little crazy.” People are willing to go the extra mile when things get tough because we haven’t burned them out along the way. If you consider your people to be your number one most important customer, they’ll go out of their way, when it’s necessary, to take care of your number two most important customer – the people who buy your products and services – so that they become raving fans. Some of our clients have had a leader go to another company and take us with them. It’s all because we’re not doing it to them, we’re doing it with them. We have hired some folks with the title of solutions architects, who are all about taking care of customers in a way that makes a difference to them. We have really enhanced our customer experience. In the year 2019 we were doing maybe 20 online sessions a month, and now we do maybe 800-900 a month. We were able to transfer all of our curriculum online. When face-to-face training comes back, it will be a combination of different approaches

Connex: Do you think it’s possible to have the same quality of interaction on Zoom as face-to-face?

Ken: You can do a lot on Zoom. Particularly because you can see someone and watch their expressions. Periodically, you do need to be face-to-face – there’s nothing like a good hug or a handshake. But the big thing about this pandemic is that we need to communicate more rather than less, and Zooming really does permit us to do that. Because more than ever, people really want to be heard. It’s a crazy time, but it’s also an exciting time. We couldn’t be in a better industry than we are now. And we really need that now: to be with each other.