Time for more MBWA (Management By Walking Around)

Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

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.

In a world overrun by the MBA ethic, and people and systems stressed beyond their breaking points, perhaps we need to see more MBWA, or "Management By Walking Around," 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.

However, in the words of Joepi Paloma, too many managers practice "management by walking away" versus management by walking around.

Tim Rogers, a management practitioner and active blogger, shares this epiphany: When he first moved into management, he felt overwhelmed by constant interruptions from his team members and colleagues. "I felt myself getting more and more frustrated with each successive walk-up or phone call, unable to concentrate on my report," he reports. However, as he quickly recognized, this was the essence of management:

"This is what management is like. It’s not characterized by long, uninterrupted stretches of quiet time. It’s interrupt-driven, often zig-zagging from  one issue to another, typically-unrelated issue. Of course it’s not healthy for the team to become completely dependent on the manager for all decision-making, but the team is not going to become more confidently self-sufficient if the manager is isolated and unavailable. Every contact with the team is an opportunity to clarify expectations and align priorities. I’d rather err on the side of too many  interruptions, to the point of making myself more accessible through management-by-wandering-around (MBWA)."

As a manager that needs some periods of quiet name, Rogers reports that he has "learned to work in shorter bursts of productivity."

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.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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