A popular business trend that I would like to see make a comeback from the 1980s is “Management By Walking Around” (“MBWA” for those who like catchy acronyms). It is the idea that managers should get out of their office and among the workers in order to be actively engaged in their business and communicate with staff at all levels. The need for such MBWA engagement was once illustrated at a client site. (We’ll call them “8-Wire Inc.” in order to protect the innocent).
8-Wire was going through significant change at the senior executive and departmental levels. I was helping them with a business improvement project and spoke with two individuals in a department that recently lost its manager and was being led by an external acting manager. When speaking to them about some project items, I sensed their frustration about the organisation and specific challenges in their department. I asked them “How do you feel about the things going on at 8-Wire?”
For the next 30 minutes I heard what their manager should have heard; what their director should have known; and what their chief operating officer wished he knew!
- Annual performance reviews that were not done because their manager was too busy.
- Unclear expectations as to their responsibilities and an inability to achieve them.
- Issues raised with the acting manager that were either not communicated to (or not understood by) the director.
I encouraged the employees to communicate their concerns higher up the food chain than the acting manager. However, I was saddened the “higher-ups” had not already been swimming among the “little fish” and found this information out. As I left, I reflected on our conversation and why it is important for senior management to get out of their office and engage with their organisation:
- Empathy with your staff: Keep hallway conversations social — never ask about project tasks. If you need an update on a task, it is better to call the staff member later or stop by their office, rather than having your team run the other direction every time they see you in the corridor. When a manager is out among his/her staff showing an interest in their well-being — he/she is no longer a faceless authority figure, but rather an engaged leader they can believe in.
- Non-verbal communication: Body language speaks volumes. When you ask staff how things are going in their department and within the organisation (at their desk — see above), pay careful attention to non-verbal cues such as body language and voice inflections that may indicate the need to dig deeper.
- Accessibly: Although most managers tell their staff “my door is always open,” that invitation is the office equivalent to the non-committal “call me if you need anything” that you tell your new neighbour as he is moving in next door. Because people do not want to impose, it is often offered but rarely accepted. If you are serious about helping your new neighbour pick-up a box! If you are serious about engaging your staff, get out among them — communicating and being communicated to!
- Accountability: Many managers treat their executives like mushrooms — keeping them in the dark and feeding them manure! However, if that senior executive is engaging staff at all levels, inconsistencies and nuances between a line-manager’s report and first-hand conversations with staff will quickly be realised. Business leadership is people leadership. One cannot lead people without being among them. It is the savvy business leader who is among the staff, engaged with the staff — listening, looking and leading by example.
Chris Pope is the director of The Valde Group (www.valde.co.nz), a management consultancy. He will speak on “The top 10 ways to ‘failure proof’ your projects” at this year’s CIO Conference “Successful strategies for a complex world” on September 16 and 17 in Auckland.