When I was just cutting my teeth in my career I found myself working with a business unit that had been swallowed up by the mega-company that hired me. Old timers in the shop of that unit liked to tell me about the “good ole days” when the owner would shut down the plant early on a Friday afternoon once a month and threw a beer bash in the parking lot for all the employees. The owner was tough, they would say, but he wasn't afraid to talk to the workers, and he knew the business inside and out.
Fast-forward a few years. The beer bashes were history. In all fairness, it was only a matter of time before some employee knocked down one too many and the beer bashes would have been nixed for good. But the end of party day was only one indicator. Shop workers could tell things had changed when after several years employees still couldn't tell you the new CEO’s name, much less pick him out of a crowd. Regardless of how personable he was, their impression of him was that he was so glued to his office he would need a map to find his way to the plant.
That doesn't necessarily sound like a bad thing. After all, isn't it better to be a hands-off manager and let those closest to the work take care of things? And how practical is it to get out and visit every department each month? Isn’t that why we delegate?
Unfortunately, over the years I've seen more than one flare-up created when leaders made a decision without understanding the business at the core work level. For example, changing employee working hours, only to end up with the fewest employees available when customers most needed help. Or mandating set start and end times to stop tardiness with the result that employees who had been working long hours without extra pay cut their hours substantially.
Yet some leaders still enthusiastically regularly cruise through the operation to stay on top of what really goes on in the heart of their business. In the 1970s, Texas Instruments (TI) devised a method to keep managers connected to core employees: MBWA, or, Management By Walking Around. TI managers were taught to spend time each day just wandering around, not to micromanage, but to better understand the employee experience in their departments.
Then Sam Walton came along and pushed the bar up a few notches. Sam taught us that even in big business it's not impossible for the CEO to know what goes on at the customer level. As his Wal-Mart empire grew, he still somehow managed to get out and personally visit stores and talk shop with floor staff. Now, some management programs have commercialized Sam's ideas directing supervisors and managers to spend some set number of hours each week in the trenches so they don't lose touch with the problems employees deal with each day.
Billionaire commodities investor Jim Rogers says that if you really want to know what's going on with a commodity, travel across the countries that produce it—skipping the tourist traps—and drive through the villages and towns of the common folks. While I probably won't take up the role of world traveler every time I want to adjust my portfolio, the lesson makes sense. When it comes to high-level decisions, know your markets...or operations. Perhaps if we applied this principle in leadership there would be fewer "us" versus "them" conversations between workers and management.
In my rookie years, I never figured out if the employees in the shop wanted more of a relationship with the boss, more attention, or just free beer. But one thing I learned was that leaders who aren't afraid to get their suits dirty from time to time can gain greater respect from employees and a broader perspective for leading the whole organization effectively.
While the days of the monthly beer bash are probably gone forever, we can bring back the basic premise behind it: getting out among the workers. Whether you’re a frontline supervisor or CEO, a simple walk through operations from time to time is invaluable. It provides perspective and appreciation for employee challenges, frustrations, and needs.
Consider scheduling time each month for visits in various areas of the business. Ask employees what they like most about their jobs or work and what frustrates them the most. Get their perspectives about how the customer feels about the product or service. Add support service departments to your list of places to visit and learn how well they support the core business.
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