"It's not uncommon to find that 20% to 40% of the acts and activities of leaders at all three levels [top, middle, frontline] provide only questionable value to those above and below them. It's also not uncommon to find that leaders are underinvesting in 20% to 40% of the acts and activities that interviewees at their level cite as important."
That means one to two days of effort per week every week is misdirected, wasted or neglected. That has to come at a cost. And it has to suggest an opportunity.
W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, quoted in the introduction, are known for their Blue Ocean Strategy work, and have applied some of those principles to leadership. Their approach seeks to "help leaders release the blue ocean of unexploited talent and energy in their organizations rapidly and at low cost". It turns out that there's also a lot of unexploited talent and energy within the leaders themselves as the statistics on actions and activities of only questionable value highlight.
"Value" is a key idea. Value is what customers buy. Likewise, "leadership, in essence, can be thought of as a service that people in an organization 'buy' or 'don't buy'." And much of the value that leaders provide is delivered or not through their actions, activities and attention.
Kim and Mauborgne encourage leaders to think of their team members, their peers and their bosses as "customers". "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."
To this end, they emphasise the importance of leaders focusing on acts and activities. (In this way their approach is highly compatible with our Situational Leadership® model, which emphasises task focus and observable behaviours.) Noting that much leadership literature and training focuses on developing leaders' values, qualities and behavioural traits, they suggest that while these things are indeed important, we must also consider the value of focusing on what leaders are actually doing right now and how some of those actions might be altered. It turns out that changing actions and activities is a faster route to changing results and performance, because it focuses on what leaders actually do. (And we know that changing actions and behaviours can and does happen before changing attitudes and often shapes attitude change.)
Actions matter because "we trust what we see". We know what our managers at any level value because we can see their actions and where they focus their attention, energy and effort.
Kim and Mauborgne demonstrate this through a series of input sessions where they establish "as-is leadership" canvases that identify 10-15 activities leaders are observed to be engaging in at low to high levels. "The customers of leaders are asked which acts and activities good and bad their leaders spend most of their time on, and which are key to motivation and performance but are neglected by their leaders." To ensure this doesn't simply become a list of complaints or a wish-list, " the as-is canvases must be grounded in acts and activities that reflect each level's specific market reality and performance goals".
The activities that get listed might range from low value activities like "requesting frequent and detailed progress reports" and "requiring and reviewing justifications for decisions from below", to high value activities like "coaching people" and "empowers frontline managers to stretch themselves". The resulting feedback canvas can be confronting, but it's a powerful insight into what the team members (aka "customers") are experiencing, and why their talents and energy are so often not used to potential.
These "as-is" canvases can then be labelled with summary descriptors of current leader behaviours. The authors cite the example of three levels of "as-is" feedback in one organisation as: "Please the Boss" (frontline managers); "Control and Play Safe" (middle managers); "Focus on the Day-to-Day" (senior managers).
Simply, leaders too often get in others' way and their own.
The "as-is" assessment is then used to stimulate identification of an alternative, more effective leadership profile again, grounded in actions and activities, and related directly to each level's market realities and performance goals. This process asks people to "detail which acts and activities they believe would add real value for them if undertaken by their current leaders".
These contrasting profiles are also given summary descriptions. In the organisation cited above for frontline managers this became "Cut through the crap" (Serve the customer, not the boss); for middle managers "Liberate, coach and empower" (More coaching, less control); and for senior managers "Delegate and chart the company's future" (Move from focusing on the day-to-do to the big picture). In some ways it all seems quite logical and sensible. But of course intention and action do not always align, and what we think we are doing isn't necessarily what others experience us doing. Hence the gap in leadership value.
Helping leaders get out of their own and others' way means clearly identifying the actions and activities that deliver value and those that do not. As noted in the introduction, Kim and Mauborgne suggest that one to two days a week can be wasted without this clarity and discipline.
The contrasting leadership profiles (from as-is to "to-be") can then be evaluated against the Blue Ocean Leadership grid that helps identify activities that should be Eliminated, Reduced, Raised, or Created.
The results of the Blue Ocean Leadership approach can be impressive. Kim and Mauborgne cite a British retail group that applied the approach and found that turnover of their 10,000 frontline employees dropped from 40% to 11% in the first year, and customer satisfaction scores increased by over 30%. As well, "leaders at all levels reported feeling less stressed, more energized by their ability to act, and more confident they were making a greater contribution to the company, customers and their own personal development". Not a bad return for some practical changes in everyday actions.
You can read more about the Blue Ocean Leadership approach through their HBR article. And you can learn more about task-focused leadership practices in our Situational Leadership® workshops. You can probably also apply the principles in this article with some individual or team reflection. Honestly identifying where you're spending your time, the relative value of that investment, and which activities you should be eliminating, reducing, raising or creating can help ensure real leadership value is being delivered to your "customers".