Management by walking around. How long has this business bromide been with us? In their groundbreaking 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified the management by walking around (MBWA) concept as one of the characteristics of excellent companies and successful leaders. Throughout the 80s, thousands of CEOs, business owners, and managers escaped the confines of their corner offices and embraced the MBWA philosophy. Many even threw open-book management into the mix, resulting in a more open, interactive workplace.
MBWA lost some of its appeal a decade later when the companies that Peters and Waterman cited as examples of excellence started underperforming. But the concept was resurrected in the late 90s and early 2000s, albeit in a different form, as many companies adopted the ultra-relaxed atmosphere of the dotcoms. In those work environments one could hardly tell the boss from the workers as everyone wandered the hallways in T-shirts and jeans.
Management theories in this century, such as “the Tipping Point” and “the Long Tail,” are more marketing- and market-driven. And the advent of communication by e-mail and IM has planted many a manager’s butt in their seats. Still, there are plenty of bosses and managers wandering the hallways, patting themselves on the back because they think walking amongst the people is a noble act.
The thing is … it could be. MBWA can pay off big, especially for entrepreneurial companies, but you have to do it the right way and for the right reasons.
If the point of MBWA is (as Peters and Waterman thought) to recognize and appreciate the employees who help make you successful, then what’s not to like? Seeing you in the flesh gives your staff the opportunity to see their boss as less the faceless voice of authority and more a genuine human being who is invested in their ideas and opinions. The problem arises when those who walk the halls do it for all the wrong reasons.
As a management exercise I like to ask business owners to think of all the bosses they’ve worked for in the past. Remember the ones you admired and the ones you detested and why you felt that way. I’d bet all of us at one time or another have worked for someone who swore by MBWA, only they did it to see if you were at your desk on time or to make sure you weren’t on a personal phone call.
Today, many business owners walk the floor only when a crisis has hit, and they think their presence will calm their employees. The trouble is, that’s not effective if you’ve been hiding in your office before the you-know-what hit the fan. MBWA only works (and it does work) if you do it regularly — and if you really want to know what’s going on in your company.
Effective leaders do more than just communicate with their employees; they encourage all employees to do the same. Open communication is key to business survival, particularly when times are tough. Chances are that some of your employees are concerned about their job security and the stability of your company. If you hide out in your office, rumors will only increase, as will the number of resumes headed out the door.
Entrepreneurs do not always make the best managers. Most of you started out alone and find it hard to adjust to the fact that you’re now sharing your business with other people. But you are, so you’d better learn to be more open and accessible.
Inside the big corporations that Peters and Waterman studied, they found small teams of employees, powered by their shared passion, fueling the success of each business. And central to these groups were the managers who walked the hallways interacting with them, answering their questions, and learning more about their own companies.
Real leaders are problem solvers. They don’t abdicate responsibility, they don’t expect others to make the tough decisions, and they don’t shy away from accountability. Management guru W. Edwards Deming (he of the famous 14 points of management) said it best: “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go find them. The big problems are [the ones] people don’t realize they have in the first place.”