Could you apply blue ocean marketing/consumer-type strategies to the idea of leadership?

You might have heard of “blue ocean strategy.” It’s a very b-school term in some ways, but basically it means this: rather than going head-to-head with your competitors on everything, carve out “blue oceans” of untapped market space. It’s all documented in this 2005 book and via this website. Some popular examples include Southwest Airlines — which basically made affordable travel more reputable — and Home Depot — which moved the idea of a lumberyard to a shopping center with DIY capabilities (i.e. housewives now want to go to a lumber yard, which is a new market space). Apple would be another major example: the iPhone, iPad and iPod essentially carved out new market space for the overall brand.

So, when you conventionally talk about blue ocean strategy, you’re talking about (a) customer acquisition and (b) markets/marketing, so ultimately you’re discussing (c) the bottom line. But could you take the same concepts and, instead of applying them to revenue stream and P&L, actually apply them to ideas around leadership and employee engagement?

Purportedly, you can. And here’s how:

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.

The core tenets of how you do this are fairly basic on surface — you connect work back to acts and activities, you tie work to the market realities, and you attempt to distribute leadership at the different levels, for example. The biggest ideas behind applying Blue Ocean to leadership involve looking at your leadership more realistically: what actions are they doing most of the time, and are those actions providing value to other constituencies (i.e. customers, direct reports, bosses)? Most of the studies that the Blue Ocean has done has found something depressing, but not surprising: essentially, 20-40 percent of a manager’s time is used on activities that really benefit no one else (not even their boss!). So essentially, managers are doing work nearly half the time that serves no one in particular.

A lot of fixing this requires things that are hard in mid-size to large-size companies: notably, you need strong, effective communication channels, and you need everyone to calm down, stop worrying about the day-to-day, and instead look at the big picture for a day or two. In fact, in Blue Ocean leadership applications, the mantra for senior managers is “Shift from the day-to-day to the big picture.” Hmm. You see a lot of the same problems in this space that you see with job descriptions: job descriptions are often recycled, even though the person that most recently had the job may have brought some new value-adds to it (or, on the flip side, exposed that certain traits needed to be there for sure). If you just keep recycling the job description, then 2-3 hires hence, it’s a fuddled mess. Similarly, if you just keep recycling the same idea of what a leader should be doing in your org — without stopping and thinking “Hey, have needs changed at all in the past year or two?” — then it becomes a mess as well. I’m not advocating doing this every week (you could, although realistically, very few people would have time for that). But doing it once every 18 months seems reasonable, and seems like a good idea in terms of your overall direction.

Here’s the overall summary of the Blue Ocean leadership best-case scenario:

The Leadership Canvases give people a concrete, visual framework in which they can surface and discuss the improvements leaders need to make. The fairness of the process makes the implementation and monitoring of those changes far easier than in traditional top-down approaches. Moreover, blue ocean leadership achieves a transformation with less time and effort, because leaders are not trying to alter who they are and break the habits of a lifetime. They are simply changing the tasks they carry out. Better yet, one of the strengths of blue ocean leadership is its scalability. You don’t have to wait for your company’s top leadership to launch this process. Whatever management level you belong to, you can awaken the sleeping potential of your people by taking them through the four steps.

That last part is dicey at hierarchy-centric places: change from the middle isn’t always valued in such an environment.

My dad’s birthday was this past Saturday, and I was actually having a convo with him about all this on his birthday, in part because I’m rolling off a full-time, two-year grad program and looking for a job, so I’m encountering all these realities in new ways. He was telling me a story of one of his friends, now retired, who was a product manager at IBM for a number of years. Later in his career (late 50s and beyond), top dogs came to him and said, “You need to cut 10 to 12 percent from your budget.” The only way he could do it was to fire people, including people that hung out with his wife and him, had dinner with them, etc. He did it. Three years later, IBM came and said the same thing. He did it again. Two years after that, they came back and said the same thing; this time, he took early retirement even though he wasn’t 100 percent ready. He couldn’t deal with it anymore. I’m not using that example to call out IBM — other companies do the same thing. What I am calling out is that the prevailing mentality in business is often “products and P&L matter, whereas people are interchangeable.” I understand this, and logically, it makes some sense. As millennials flood the job market and presumably look for “experiences” rather than “careers,” hiring managers will feel this way even more. It’s hard to prioritize the idea of “Blue Ocean” — so successful in customer acquisition — as a leadership strategy, because, well, if the people are interchangeable, why apply the Blue Ocean resources to that side? Why not apply them just to the revenue-facing side? Well, the answer is: you become a great company by helping make your employees great (and thus tying them to you), and that helps you avoid the problems that other, potential competitors, are facing.

So in an ironic way, then, using something like Blue Ocean Leadership is a blue ocean strategy in and of itself: you’re essentially creating a new market that your competitors might not be doing. If you’re developing your people better, that is a strategic edge.



Ted Bauer


  1. Good day! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this.
    I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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