When it comes to what’s going on in his business, one of my favorite CEOs has the humility to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” He wisely acknowledges what many C-suite leaders don’t: If he only only knows what his subordinates present to him, then he doesn’t know enough. So this CEO makes good use of a sophisticated technique called managing by wandering around (aka MBWA).
Get Yourself a Roaming Plan
Tom Peters, the consultant’s consultant, frequently stresses the value of MBWA as a way to learn about what’s really going on. I also recommend it as a way to convey some of the subtler nuances of cultural norms — the things you care about and believe in.
Make it a regular practice to check out your employees in their natural habitats. Eat in the break room from time to time. Ride along on sales calls. Visit focus or feedback groups in your service department.
Here’s your goal: to understand employees’ beliefs, perceptions, and recommendations before they’re sanitized through the filtering system that is your hierarchy.
Even the CEO — possibly particularly the CEO — may never see the whole picture otherwise. Leaders can be isolated by a combination of their formal authority and their expectations about how things are supposed to work. Because people don’t want to displease their leaders, they sometimes edit out crucial truths along with the risks, bad news, and other implications that may be visible only from their vantage points.
Checking in without the usual pomp, circumstance, and PowerPoint creates an ideal opportunity for senior execs to show their curiosity, work ethic, appreciation, willingness to learn, and comfort with being challenged.
Before You Go on Walkabout
Here are a few cautions if you’re going to start an MBWA routine:
- Don’t assume that quieter or less expressive employees don’t have as much to say as the more gregarious, extroverted types. Also, the people you don’t naturally gravitate to may, in fact, have the most illuminating thoughts to share.
- Don’t focus repetitively on the same folks. That can look like favoritism. Even when you find people who are engaged — and engaging — and can contribute a lot, it pays to seek out others who also have value. So don’t neglect the people on the factory floor, at retail locations, in satellite offices, or in the mail room.
- Don’t announce your unvarnished findings in your next C-Suite meeting. A skillful CEO will learn things that other C-level or executive colleagues may not know — or may not want to know — and exposing employees’ candid thoughts too bluntly may create problems for everyone. Think carefully about how to best use your newfound content.
- In the same vein, in a company with multiple layers of authority, consider hanging out with your direct subordinates a bit before you branch out, unless your intention is to act like Undercover Boss, which is exceedingly difficult to pull off without a camera crew and TV producers.
- Recognize that your very presence can create interruptions and anxiety, so prepare an explanation for why you’re dropping in, and be quick to offer to return another time.
- Ask each person that you meet: “What else should I be asking you about? And who else should I be visiting?”
- Lastly, if you’re considering developing an MBWA practice, put it into your calendar first. Serendipitous interactions are great, but they’ll never provide the same level of instruction or opportunity as consistent, persistent engagement.