A whale of a time

One-Minute Manager Ken Blanchard explains to DeeDee Doke why his ideas have
transformed people and their workplaces all over the world.  Photos by Phil Hill

Waiters at the airy, greenery-filled café at a big hotel in Birmingham, UK,
probably don’t realise how close they came to receiving a One-Minute Reprimand
in person from the original One-Minute Manager himself, Ken Blanchard.

Three attempts in 20 minutes at ordering drinks for himself and his party
fail as one waiter after another takes the order and promptly disappears. A
frown crosses Blanchard’s normally jovial features as he firmly hails yet
another waiter. "Is there any way to get a Diet Coke here?" Blanchard
growls. "Is there some secret?"

Despite an obviously tenuous grasp of English, the latest waiter soon reappears
with the drinks. Instead of a One-Minute Reprimand, Blanchard offers the waiter
a warm, truncated version of a One-Minute Praising that ends in smiles on both
sides. Blanchard then explains the personal philosophy that has led to his
being a best-selling author and co-author of 20 or so management and parenting
books such as The One-Minute Manager, Gung Ho!, Raving Fans, and his latest,
Whale Done.

"I really feel that if you treat people well, they will respond well. I
think there’s nothing more important than positive relationships," says
Blanchard. "The other big thing that keeps showing up in most of my
writing now is the human ego and getting out of [doing things] our own way. I
just love a concept I heard recently from an old Texan about how real joy comes
from getting to the act of forgetfulness about yourself."

Based in San Diego, California, Blanchard – who still occasionally teaches a
class at Cornell University – is a global industry in himself, built on the
multi-layered foundation of his management books, speaking engagements and his
company, Blanchard Training and Development.

To talk with Blanchard is to hear any number of homespun stories that
illustrate a specific point in simple language aimed at touching the heart as
well as triggering a mental catalyst – a trait his conversation shares with the
books he writes. And there is usually a moral to the tale, or at least a strong
punch line. There’s the story about the little girl who shares all of her
birthday sweets and doesn’t get any for herself, the one about the friend who
worked for former US President Bill Clinton, and a telling anecdote about how
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel peace prize in an epiphany after his own death
was mistakenly reported.

The books

Whale Done spins the yarn of an unhappy manager who discovers happiness at
work and at home by learning to adapt to humans the positive reinforcement
training given to killer whales at a marine park.

Gung Ho! sets a three-rule philosophy of mutual support and team-building
against a backdrop of Native American wisdom and knowledge of nature,
infiltrated by just a hint of romance. According to Blanchard and co-author
Sheldon Bowles, profits, productivity and individual prosperity can all be
increased by adhering to the Spirit of the Squirrel, the Way of the Beaver and
the Gift of the Goose – memorable slogans that stick in the mind. Storytelling,
Blanchard concedes, is crucial to his method of spreading the message of the

"After we know what we want to teach, we sit around and say, ‘What kind
of story could we put together?’ I have found that people really love stories,
little stories," he says. "When I was young, I just loved Antoine St.
Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Then when I got older, I loved the parables in the
Bible, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Og Mandino’s The Greatest
Salesman of Them All.

"What’s good about writing stories is," he continues, "people
lower their defences. You write a book with all this research and people say,
‘You’ve got to be joking.’ You tell them a story about an angel and a fairy
godmother and so on, people get into the story, and suddenly, they’re learning
something. You’ve caught ’em."

Simple or simplistic?

"So many people want to write off this kind of stuff as airy-fairy,
soft stuff," Blanchard concedes. "But it’s not. It’s good business
sense. We wouldn’t be giving money-back guarantees if we didn’t think it worked
in terms of performance."

To date, that guarantee hasn’t lost Blanchard and company much money in
seminars or training and development that expand on the messages in his books.
"It’s really interesting. You know why I think they don’t want to take it
up? I don’t think people want to be held accountable. Because part of the deal is,
we put full-time people in their organisation to make sure they do what they
said they were going to do," he says. "It’s really interesting how
people want to do what they want to do but don’t want to be held

When Blanchard sets out to develop a new book, however, he is adamant about
conducting considerable research, however little the resulting product looks
like a scholarly tome. Once the first draft is written, Blanchard shares it
with an inner circle, asks for their opinions, "then we rewrite it, give
it to a wider circle, then a wider circle".

One tier in the circle comes from a cross-section of a small community in
New York state where Blanchard and his wife have a summer cottage. When one of
his books is in the pipeline, he invites local people to read a copy of the
book, fill out a questionnaire on it and then attend a buffet dinner for which
Blanchard picks up the tab.

"Last summer, I sent out Whale Done but the title was From Killer
Whales to Kids – the Power of Positive Relationships. I tell guests that their
homework while they’re eating is to agree on three things they like best about
the book, three things they would change to make it better and their favourite
title aside from the one on the book. I go around with a microphone, and get a
report from each table," he says.

At one table, a group suggested that he change the title to Whale Done, a
pun drawing both on the phrase ‘well done’ and the whale training, and the new
title was set. "It wasn’t even anywhere in the book," Blanchard says.
"But Whale Done is a lot better."

Servant leadership

One of his latest projects is the Center for Faith Walk Leadership, a
non-profit organisation that aims to help "people of faith walk their
faith in the marketplace", Blanchard says. "Right now, we’re
concentrating on Christians, but we’ve had people of other faiths come. That’s
where we started Egos Anonymous. Now we’re starting to use it with some of our
regular clients. I mean, it’s pretty powerful when a company permits an Egos
Anonymous meeting in their top management group, and people get up and say,
‘I’m an ego maniac. The last time my ego got in the way was’ whenever’."

"We’ve got it into a 12-step programme, like Alcoholics Anonymous. You
take an inventory of people you might have hurt in the past."

Both efforts tie in to the ‘servant leadership’ concept in business that
Blanchard is quick to explain does not mean "trying to please everybody or
letting the inmates run the prison. Servant leadership starts with a clear
vision, and what you serve is the vision. What happens in most companies is
that the companies are serving the managers, particularly the top managers, and
that’s where you get self-serving organisations."

His next book, The One Minute Apology, comes out this winter. He jokes that
it is dedicated to Bill Clinton, but joking aside, it is clear from Blanchard’s
comments that top executives and leaders in a world rocked by high-level
corporate and political scandals are a key target audience for his latest opus.
"The whole question about an Enron, or anything, is that human beings make
mistakes. The longer you take to admit a wrongdoing, the quicker a weakness is
perceived as a wickedness. Almost anything can be perceived as a weakness – ‘I
took my eye off the ball’, ‘I wasn’t paying attention and it was on my watch’,
‘Sex is a problem for me’ – whatever," Blanchard says.

"I think one of the most powerful things that managers and leaders can
have in their arsenal is the capacity to admit when they’ve made a mistake,
because we’ve all done stupid things," he continues. "You get caught
up in the moment. You’re vulnerable."

The key, he says, is to "give up being right. That doesn’t mean you’re
giving up what you stand for". But it does mean getting the old ego out of
the way. To Blanchard’s thinking, and exploring a more thoughtful, reflective
self that "allows us to recalibrate who we want to be". Alarm clocks,
for example, symbolise to him the jarring pace of the modern rat race
("The problem with being in a rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a
rat," he quips), which forces people to lose sight of who they are and who
they want to be.

Cue the story of Alfred Nobel, who was involved in the invention of
dynamite. When a Swedish newspaper confused Alfred Nobel with his brother and
reported that he had died, the living brother unhappily observed that his
obituary focused on dynamite and its destructive qualities. He then vowed to
refocus on the opposite of destruction and redesigned his life so he would
ultimately be remembered more for peace.

To the discomfort of Blanchard’s wife, the man who would like to be
remembered as a "185-pound flexible golfing machine" has made a tape
recording for his own funeral. "It starts off, ‘This is the toughest group
I’ve ever worked with.’ "I want people to have a good time when I go.
But," he adds, "I’m going to redo it. I made it a few years ago, and
I’ve got some better stories now."

Companies seek to gain knowledge

Gung Ho! is more than a buzz phrase
to workers at many of the global locations of Hilti, the company that makes
products and systems for construction and demolition. Rolled out in the UK and
Ireland from the beginning of 2001, the programme has also been put into effect
in Australia, the Middle East and the US and is being considered for worldwide

Taking that particular Blanchard philosophy to the workforce
and building it into the corporate culture is a full-time job for Peter
Thompson, the official Gung Ho! champion for the UK and Ireland’s Hilti branches.
"There was some scepticism to start with," says Thompson, whose work
shirt sports an embroidered Gung Ho! slogan. "There was a mixed reaction
from the executive team, and you have to have the CEO on board to ultimately
drive the thing."

The initial hesitation stemmed in part from the enthusiastic
Americanism so evident in the programme’s teachings. Once tried out, however,
approving noises circulating throughout the company’s internal grapevine
hastened its acceptance  – so much so
that Thompson was asked to bring forward the training dates for some company
operations. "It generates its own momentum," he says.

Thompson also introduced the programme’s first phase in Hilti’s
Middle East operations, where a number of different nationalities were
represented. There, a key concern had been to help Filipino employees be better
integrated in the corporate culture, a common issue in the Middle East where
Filipinos often fill the least prestigious workplace roles. "It was very
interesting," Thompson says. "It transported much easier across
cultures than I would have imagined."

The programme’s initial impact was to break down cultural
barriers between nationalities and help build an improved work environment.
"Now we have to do the hard work of focusing on values."  

Hilti, Thompson acknowledges, had been ‘under performing’ for
some time when Gung Ho! was introduced. But in January, February and March of
this year, Thompson says, "we as an organisation met our targets, and we
hadn’t done that since June 2000". One of the factors involved had to be
Gung Ho!, Thompson believes. "We see the change: targeting, belief in our
company and a changed environment with Gung Ho!"

Comments are closed.