A Little Comic Relief For Leaders


Roger Trapp, Contributor

February 27, 2015

Next month, people across Britain will be donning plastic red noses and doing zany things in schools, workplaces and elsewhere in the name of charity. As an effectively one-off event – Red Nose Day – Comic Relief has captured the imagination and, more importantly, the cash of the British public. In the 30 years since it started it has raised more than £950 million. That would be impressive enough on its own. But the charity also stands out for other reasons. It makes donating to charity accessible to all because even the smallest donation of a few pence is acknowledged and recognised. It makes giving fun rather than a duty. Because it does not have the overheads of other charities it is able to give all the money it raises to good causes – so going some way to overcome “charity fatigue”.

Now, this remarkable success story is linking up with another. Comic Relief is one of the case studies in the expanded tenth anniversary edition of one of the best-selling business books ever, Blue Ocean Strategy (Harvard Business Press). That book sets out how certain businesses are able to move out of the “red oceans” of intense and bloody competition into “blue oceans” of untapped opportunity. Such companies are effectively creating new markets, as Apple did with the iPod or Salesforce.com has done with on-demand customer relationship management. Or they are transforming existing ones into something altogether more exciting and compelling, as has been the case with, say, flip-flops and Havaianas and coffee shops and Starbucks.

As with all strategy theories, the “blue ocean” approach developed by INSEAD’s W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne has had its detractors. But at a time when businesses of all sorts are under attack from competitors they are often barely aware of until it is too late, the analysis and framework for escaping the trap of intense competition are understandably attractive. It is encouraging to believe that – even now – businesses can exploit new markets – at least for a while.

In a talk in London last night to publicise the new edition, Mauborgne was at pains to stress that the ideas were not limited to business. Hence the Comic Relief example. However, it is not obvious that this really does fit the model. Perhaps the reason that there have been no imitators of Comic Relief is that it is a genuine one-off. It is not really competing with other charities because it works with some of them to channel the funds raised to the right places. Thanks to its origins, it also has unrivalled access to the celebrities who – for all the efforts of ordinary people – really give the event its impetus. And all of this has helped it build a formidable set of partnerships with organizations ranging from retailers to technology companies to get the message across and collect the money.

Be that as it may, the real challenge – as Mauborgne also acknowledged in her talk – is the leadership one. Applying the “blue ocean” approach to leadership requires acknowledging that leaders have customers as much as their businesses do. “People can choose to buy your leadership or not,” she said. Pointing to the statistics that consistently show that employees are much more disengaged than executives believe them to be, she added: “Those disengaged employees are non-buyers of leadership”.

One of the problems, she believes, is that most discussion of leadership attributes talks about values, behaviours and the like. But these all take years to develop. What is needed is more immediate action.

Research suggests, she says, that 30 to 40% of what leaders do is either unproductive or counter-productive. So eliminating this – if organizations only knew what it was – would help create the time that leaders should be spending with the people who work with them and upon whom successful strategies depend. The rest of the time could be well spent with customers because, again, studies suggest a disconnect between companies and their customers.

As Red Nose Day will surely demonstrate, that is not a problem that those behind Comic Relief share. So, perhaps for that reason alone, the organization’s 30-year success story is worthy of study.

This article was written by Roger Trapp from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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