How Steve Jobs earned his MBWA degree (Management By Walking Around)

How a relatively simple best practice helped build one of the world's most successful companies.

Reports have surfaced that Apple Chairman Steve Jobs often engaged in customer service on a personal basis. The point wasn't to fill in for an understaffed contact center; his time would be considered too valuable. Nor was it just about injecting himself into escalated situations to patch up customer relations; which, by the way, is a good strategy in and of itself.

Jobs had mastered the art of MBWA, or Management By Walking Around.  It's a relatively simple -- but way underused -- best practice that keeps managers in touch with the people paying the bills or making things happen around the company. CNN's Mark Milian calls Jobs an "outlier" in this regard, noting that few top managers bother to get their hands dirty with the day-to-day doings of companies and customers. Jobs would personally respond to an inordinate amount of customer emails, which often dealt with hardware issues or pricing questions. He also would pick up the phone and call customers about their problems.

If anyone needs proof that CEOs and other business leaders can really change their own perspective, as well as transform the business by relatively simple best practices such as MBWA, just look at Apple's performance over the past decade.

Steve Jobs never got an MBA (he would have majored in something else anyway), but he attained his MBWA with honors.

I'll relate my own personal experience with a company that benefited from MBWA. Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work closely with Olsten Corporation on some research projects, and got to know William Olsten, the company's late founder. Bill Olsten, who built the company from a small temp service in the 1950s to a billion-dollar staffing resources firm (acquired by Adecco Group in 1999), wasn't your typical Fortune 500 CEO. For one, he knew every employee by name. He made it a point to check in and say hello to staff members on a regular basis, and always let each individual know how important they were to the company.

That personal warmth even extended to contractors such as myself. When I visited Olsten headquarters, Bill Olsten would usher me into his office just to chat; and once even turned away his CFO from the door because he wanted to finish our conversation first. Talk about being made to feel important!

The world needs more Bill Olstens and Steve Jobs.

In a world overrun by the MBA ethic, and people and systems stressed beyond their breaking points, perhaps we need to see more MBWA being practiced.

MBWA -- in which managers actively get out into the trenches and listen to and engage with their employees -- was first coined by HP’s David Packard in the 1940s. By the time the computer age was in full swing four decades later, business guru and best-selling author Tom Peters revived the spirit of this  relatively simple but effective approach to corporate success, one that he said was proven to deliver far greater dividends than any amount of computer processing and bean counting. Get to know what employees are thinking and what they're up to, and let them know that you're available to help.

David Jensen, a noted leadership coach, sees MBWA as an important part of gaining buy-in to changes within the organization. For example, on the advice of Warren Buffett, when Anne Mulcahy took the reins of Xerox, she spent a lot of time meeting with both customers and front-line employees, turning the company around. By contrast, he reports how another high-tech organization sought to bully change in a detached, top-down fashion, and here's how that went over:

"Employees were asked to submit questions prior to an all-hands-meeting conducted by the CEO a few weeks after a new change had been announced. The CEO began the meeting by showing one question that actually challenged the need for the new initiative. Instead of choosing responsibly and using the opportunity to restate his case for the change, the CEO went ballistic, admonishing the anonymous writer that his attitude that was not going to be tolerated. The collective wind went out of the sails of all the employees. The executive who relayed this story to me said that the initiative is barely limping along because of the resistance of the 'silent majority.'”

MBWA, or management by walking around, is a smart approach to management, because it helps managers keep their ears to the ground on developments around the company, as well as new ideas. At a time of intense competition and rapid change, leaders need to maintain close connections with the people that will make change happen.

(Photo: CNET)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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