Go to a Ken Blanchard Companies learning event, and one thing soon becomes evident. Despite the cult-like status that the people development guru and founder and chairman Blanchard has come to hold for so many in the learning field, the company bearing his name is a decidedly family affair.
Blanchard’s son, Scott, vice-president of client delivery for the company, is founder of coaching provider Coaching.com, and consults alongside his father. Ken’s wife, Marjorie, is involved in programme development, and their children and in-laws also hold posts within the company. Blanchard senior often introduces members of his family to delegates.
At a learning event featuring father and son in the UK in May, Scott opened his session with a quip about “growing up as the one-minute son”.
Delegates laughed as he told of yearning to be punished like his peers when he misbehaved – but instead of being grounded or sent to his room, he recalls: “I had to sit at the kitchen table and talk about how my behaviour was incongruent with our family’s values.”
On the face of it, such ‘folksiness’ might seem at odds with the hard-nosed world of business. So, too, might Ken Blanchard’s frequent use of examples from the Bible and the life of Jesus to illustrate his principles on leadership and development.
Or take one of Blanchard’s more recent concepts, in which he draws on the world of training killer whales to illustrate the “power of positive relationships” in the workplace. Entitled Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships, the book could be assumed to be just another passing fad in the world of learning and development.
But Blanchard’s sheer longevity in the learning and development game, and his companies’ presence in more than 35 countries, must be seen as evidence that his ideas do have resonance for today’s leaders.
As for the hard-nosed world of business, Blanchard would be the first to argue there is nothing hard about the approach successful organisations take towards their customers and their employees – apart from the bottom-line results they get from investing in their people. In Blanchard’s own words: “My messages resonate with people’s hearts.”
Now aged 65, Blanchard published his first popular management title in 1982, and more than 20 years, on The One-Minute Manager is still a bestseller. Around 10,000 copies are sold each month, with total sales now exceeding 15 million, and it has been published in 27 languages.
The average lifespan of a management theory is about five years, but many of the ideas that Blanchard helped to develop have repeatedly bucked that trend.
Situational leadership, for example, which is all about moving your people from positions of dependency to independence, had its genesis in the late 1960s; 38 years later, it still has currency worldwide. “You must get your people feeling like they own the place,” says Blanchard. “That’s what situational leadership is all about.”
Intertwined with this concept of situational leadership is Ken’s notion of the leader as servant. “The right kind of leaders realise it’s not about them,” he says.
Even his new concepts tend to be well received – whatever one may make of phrases such as ‘Whale Done!’.
Part of that theory’s appeal may well be down to the fact that, as Blanchard says, “it’s The One-Minute Manager revisited”. He maintains that managers can learn valuable lessons from whale trainers. “If you watch one of those shows, there’s no negative interaction,” he says. “It’s either praise or re-direct.”
The ideas and messages Blanchard presents are still relevant to business today, but what of all this theory in practice? Are organisations taking on board the messages that their learning and development people are lapping up?
At one point in his UK presentation, Blanchard comes close to taunting delegates. After talking in detail about the key components that drive great organisations – such as having the right targets – he shakes his head, daring to be proved wrong: “I know you’re not going to do it.”
Ask Blanchard himself about this disparity between his decades-long mission and the unfortunate reality of the role of training in most organisations today, and he is philosophical. “It is disappointing, but I know it’s a fight worth fighting,” he says.
Blanchard believes most people get caught in “an activity rut”. Regardless of the quality of learning events they attend, they return to their desks to face endless e-mails and voicemail messages. “They’re soon back into their task-oriented self,” says Blanchard. “By the time they can act on [the learning], they’ve forgotten it.”
In an effort to combat this effect, Blanchard has introduced pre- and post-course activity for his programmes, such as six-week blocks of coaching sessions. “We’re trying to push the finish line out.”
After decades in the business, Blanchard is optimistic. “I think the stakes are higher than ever before for a new leadership model,” he says, citing factors such as the culture of change in most organisations today, increased emphasis on corporate social responsibility, and the small world globalisation has created. “We’ve really started to go at it head on.”
1969 Ken Blanchard develops Situational Leadership with Paul Hershey
1979 He launches the Ken Blanchard Companies with his wife. He writes and self- publishes The One Minute Manager with Spencer Johnson
1997 Blanchard writes Gung Ho! with Sheldon Bowles. The Ken Blanchard Companies launch an organisational change programme of the same name
2004 The Ken Blanchard Companies celebrate 25 years in business
2005 Blanchard is named the 15th best-selling author of all time, according to amazon.com.