What’s the reason for the widespread employee disengagement? According to Gallup, poor leadership is a key cause.
Most executives—not just those in America—recognize that one of their biggest challenges is closing the vast gulf between the potential and the realized talent and energy of the people they lead. As one CEO put it, “We have a large workforce that has an appetite to do a good job up and down the ranks. If we can transform them—tap into them through effective leadership—there will be an awful lot of people out there doing an awful lot of good.”
Of course, managers don’t intend to be poor leaders. The problem is that they lack a clear understanding of just what changes it would take to bring out the best in everyone and achieve high impact. We believe that leaders can obtain this understanding through an approach we call “blue ocean leadership.” It draws on our research on blue ocean strategy, our model for creating new market space by converting noncustomers into customers, and applies its concepts and analytic frameworks to help leaders release the blue ocean of unexploited talent and energy in their organizations—rapidly and at low cost.
The underlying insight is that leadership, in essence, can be thought of as a service that people in an organization “buy” or “don’t buy.” Every leader in that sense has customers: the bosses to whom the leader must deliver performance, and the followers who need the leader’s guidance and support to achieve. When people value your leadership practices, they in effect buy your leadership. They’re inspired to excel and act with commitment. But when employees don’t buy your leadership, they disengage, becoming noncustomers of your leadership. Once we started thinking about leadership in this way, we began to see that the concepts and frameworks we were developing to create new demand by converting noncustomers into customers could be adapted to help leaders convert disengaged employees into engaged ones.
Over the past 10 years we and Gavin Fraser, a Blue Ocean Strategy Network expert, have interviewed hundreds of people in organizations to understand where leadership was falling short and how it could be transformed while conserving leaders’ most precious resource: time. In this article we present the results of our research.
Key Differences from Conventional Leadership Approaches
Blue ocean leadership rapidly brings about a step change in leadership strength. It’s distinct from traditional leadership development approaches in several overarching ways. Here are the three most salient:
Focus on acts and activities. Over many years a great deal of research has generated insights into the values, qualities, and behavioral styles that make for good leadership, and these have formed the basis of development programs and executive coaching. The implicit assumption is that change in values, qualities, and behavioral styles ultimately translate into high performance.
But when people look back on these programs, many struggle to find evidence of notable change. As one executive put it, “Without years of dedicated efforts, how can you transform a person’s character or behavioral traits? And can you really measure and assess whether leaders are embracing and internalizing these personal traits and styles? In theory, yes, but in reality it’s hard at best.”
Blue ocean leadership, by contrast, focuses on what acts and activities leaders need to undertake to boost their teams’ motivation and business results, not on who leaders need to be. This difference in emphasis is important. It is markedly easier to change people’s acts and activities than their values, qualities, and behavioral traits. Of course, altering a leader’s activities is not a complete solution, and having the right values, qualities, and behavioral traits matters. But activities are something that any individual can change, given the right feedback and guidance.
Connect closely to market realities. Traditional leadership development programs tend to be quite generic and are often detached from what firms stand for in the eyes of customers and from the market results people are expected to achieve. In contrast, under blue ocean leadership, the people who face market realities are asked for their direct input on how their leaders hold them back and what those leaders could do to help them best serve customers and other key stakeholders. And when people are engaged in defining the leadership practices that will enable them to thrive, and those practices are connected to the market realities against which they need to perform, they’re highly motivated to create the best possible profile for leaders and to make the new solutions work. Their willing cooperation maximizes the acceptance of new profiles for leadership while minimizing implementation costs
Distribute leadership across all management levels. Most leadership programs focus on executives and their potential for impact now and in the future. But the key to a successful organization is having empowered leaders at every level, because outstanding organizational performance often comes down to the motivation and actions of middle and frontline leaders, who are in closer contact with the market. As one senior executive put it, “The truth is that we, the top management, are not in the field to fully appreciate the middle and frontline actions. We need effective leaders at every level to maximize corporate performance.”
Blue ocean leadership is designed to be applied across the three distinct management levels: top, middle, and frontline. It calls for profiles for leaders that are tailored to the very different tasks, degrees of power, and environments you find at each level. Extending leadership capabilities deep into the front line unleashes the latent talent and drive of a critical mass of employees, and creating strong distributed leadership significantly enhances performance across the organization.
Keep watching this space to read Part II & III of this subject.
Acknowledgement: By Chan Kim, Renee Mauborgne
This article was published in Harvard Business Review May 2014