The One Minute Manager At 40: Ken And Margie Blanchard On Leading Today

Strategy

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most well-known, well-followed and best loved business books of all time: The One Minute Manager.

Practical, pragmatic and chockablock with common sense, in just a few brief passages, authors Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson famously outlined an easy-to-follow, easy-to-implement framework for helping managers become more useful to their workers, helping them get the most out of their people’s abilities through clear, concise goal-setting and honest, timely, empathetic feedback.

Re-reading The One Minute Manager (or the updated version released a few years ago) today is a reminder of just how simple the job of helping your people get better can be—and how essential, especially at a time when retaining great talent is the whole ballgame for companies.

On December 14, Chief Executive Group is hosting an exclusive, interactive discussion session with Ken and his business and life partner (and a powerful thinker on leadership herself) Margie Blanchard. Learn More About The Event >

So how applicable is The One Minute Manager today, 40 years after it was first published? I asked Ken and Margie for their take. Here’s what they had to say, edited for length and clarity:

What do you make of the world that we’re in and the applicability of your work to our times?

Ken: I actually think The One Minute Manager applies more today almost than ever before because of Zoom. The great advantage of Zoom is that you can interact with your people much more than waiting to be face-to-face. We think that the whole concept of servant leadership is being clear on goals. And then once the goals are clear, turning the pyramid upside down and now praising progress and redirecting efforts. I think that the world’s complicated, but we need the simplicity of the three secrets more today than ever before. What do you think Margie?

Margie: People understand that leadership is going to make a difference in terms of whether people stay or not amid this great exodus [of employees] and all the rest of it. There’s a lot of power in having a great manager. Wouldn’t you want that for your daughter or your son? The One Minute Manager just in itself, if you do that, you’re about 80% there, you really are. It’s amazing how many people don’t even practice those basics.

As you say, we’re in the middle of what people call The Great Resignation, or The Turnover Tsunami. How can leaders more effectively respond?

Margie: Whenever there’s change going on—and we’re in the middle of a lot more change now than usual—my big advice to leaders, managers is that they move closer to their direct reports. If they’ve been having a monthly meeting, a one-on-one meeting, then they need to have it every other week now. Because, first of all, they are the connection between the direct report and the company. And they often know a lot of information that would be helpful to provide context about where the company’s going, and all the rest of it.

Managers have three jobs. One is to do their own work, and there’s a lot to do today. The second is to develop people, and they want to be developed, they want challenging assignments, they want coaching, they want someone to help them, so they’re not just left out there, sink or swim.

Then the third job of a leader and a manager is to be interested in someone’s career. You may not live here forever, where do you want to be? Maybe I can help you get there in the next five years, whether it’s in this company or some other company.

If you shy away from those conversations because you think it’s going to put ideas in people’s heads about leaving, well, believe me, they already have those ideas. And so, I just think that whole idea of moving closer to people than you’ve been…because when everything’s calm, you don’t need to be as close, but when everything’s in turmoil, you need to move closer.

We have five generations in the workforce simultaneously. Are there any thoughts, nuances, tips that you have about leading all of these different groups of people at the same time?

Ken: I think the big thing that we’ve learned is to move from top-down leadership to side-by-side leadership. And that’s what the younger generations want. They don’t want your job, but they want to be well-informed. They want, as Margie said, a partnership kind of thing. We call that side-by-side leadership. And people go, “Wow, that’s really right. That’s what we need now.”

Talk a little bit more about that if you would, the side-by-side leadership.

Margie: It’s assuming that your direct report may know as much or more about what the job is than you do, number one. So there’s a back and forth, especially technology-wise. One of the beauties of Zoom and other things like that is that people can work from anywhere now. But they have to be clear on The One Minute Manager secrets, you just can’t have them go willy-nilly. What makes more freedom work is structure.

Just this idea of a one-on-one meeting every other week is structure. It’s like having a date night with your spouse, it’s putting some structure around your good intentions. You can’t have freedom and no structure and know what’s going on.

What we’re teaching and what we’re recommending is actually more important now when there are more opportunities. People aren’t at the office every day, some people get hired today and are never in an office. So you’ve really got to be much more intentional about creating those relationships that are going to make a difference in terms of them staying.

Ken: You’re supposed to help people win. There’s three parts of managing performance: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance evaluation. In the past, when you ask people to look at those three and where they were spending the most time, they would say, “Evaluation.” Because they’re filling out all these stupid forms on people and putting people in through a normal distribution curve. That’s not what it is.

You were early in introducing the concept of servant leadership—literally decades before it really became one of the most buzzed-about buzzwords of the last 10 years. What do people get wrong about that? What do people not understand about what you mean by servant leadership and what it really means in practice?

Ken: The big thing that they forget is that there’s two parts. The one that they forget the most is the leadership part, which is to sit down with your people at the beginning of the year, bring them the organizational goals, but then look at their job responsibilities, and come up with three to five goals and how you’ll measure them, so that if they do a good job, they’ll get an A. That concentrates on the servant part of servant leadership, which is the day-to-day thing. But you’ve got to get the fit.

I’m just amazed at the number of people that when you ask them, “What are your goals?” They’ll say, “I don’t know, they’re probably around here somewhere, so let me check the file.” They’re not really actively used. we should have one-on-ones every two weeks. You should be looking at the goals all the time.

Margie: The idea is that it’s the manager’s job to help people get an A, rather than just judge them and sort them out.

That’s a very enlightened thought. I think so often people just hire people to help them get their work done. This whole idea that it’s your job as a leader to help people win, if you really think about that, that is a very enlightened and very counter-cultural thought.

If someone’s not doing well, what is it you’re not doing to help them win? It may be that you’re not giving them enough feedback, it’s not clear, we have to assume good intentions, the job’s over their head, or part of it is, there are many reasons.

If you can set things up in the beginning properly, the end will generally take care of itself. But if you are sloppy in the beginning, the end generally does not take care of itself. Very often it’s the worker who gets blamed, instead of, maybe, the leader who hasn’t been as clear and then followed up with, “How can I help? How can I help? How can I help?” That kind of thing.

You know, one of the things that you discuss obliquely is the power of esprit de corps—when people feel good, they perform well. Give us a tip or two to build that esprit de corps, through all of what’s going on. And why is it so important in your mind?

Ken: It’s very important because at dinner time people are talking about their bosses or work. Negative, positive and all. The great advantage of Zoom is that you can meet more frequently and develop that esprit de corps that you can’t normally when you’re always running around. [Too many leaders] are in meetings all the time, rather than taking care of their people. Their number one responsibility is their people, to bring out the best in them.

Margie: We have a challenge right now about why should people come to the office when you can do your work at home. We found out we could do our work at home last year. We need to be a lot more intentional about what’s good about coming to the office.

I was in the office not too long ago, and I noticed that I have one-on-one meetings with various people. But being able to interact with them in between those meetings, when they’re relaxed, and when they’re thinking thoughts that are maybe more creative, and when it’s more casual, I had some of the best conversations that day that I had in a year. I think we have got to take advantage of the fact that when people are together, to make the best of that time.

I’ve just finished this book called The Art of Gathering. It’s about taking responsibility to make the most of a gathering when people gather. Not just assume you’re bringing people together and they’ll take care of themselves. If you’re having a meeting, making sure that the meeting is facilitated well, so that we don’t get sloppy. Even before the pandemic, we were a little sloppy about time.

There’s a human element here we don’t want to forget. In fact, we need to be a lot more intentional about it because, left to their own devices, people will spend time with the people they already know. They won’t get the richness of even belonging to an organization. Even within a virtual world, you need to take care of people knowing each other better—not just dip right into the work that needs to be done. We are people.

There’s so much loneliness out there today, so much isolation. I began to think that the office or business may be the one place that people can connect. That there’s maybe, an ultra purpose for people coming together to work. Because it’s not happening in churches, it’s not happening in a lot of other places, not families. So, maybe, there’s a supreme purpose for having a boss that cares about you, for having work that’s meaningful, that you’re contributing to, for feeling good about the work that you’re doing, and that you’re progressing. I just wouldn’t throw it all away, I really wouldn’t. I think there’s a human aspect of this.

You two have studied leadership for decades. What’s really essential? Especially for senior leaders, CEOs, CFOs, CHROs, the people at the top of the organization?

Margie: It’s that you care enough to do the things that actually work. And also, one of the big things is you know yourself. We’re doing a lot of work with this leadership-point-of-view work, where people, they’re saying, “This is what I expect, this is what you can expect of me.” And then, “These are my values, and this is where they came from.” To share and be a little more vulnerable about who they are.

Why is it important? I think it’s to be real, to be authentic, and then I think it’s that you need to care. If all you care about is money, people know that right away. But if you care about people and you care about their development, their careers, it comes across. That’s the biggest thing.

Ken: If you care, you listen more than speak, you ask more than say.

Margie: You do all the things that we teach people.

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