Walk in the footsteps of leaders
Management by wandering around has been wandering around for decades — even longer than four score and seven years ago.
Historian Stephen B. Oates asserts in “With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” that the president invented walking around by inspecting Union troops during the Civil War. Perhaps ancient bosses also wandered about among workers.
Paul Slater wondered about all that wandering. The leadership coach, adviser, consultant, experienced project professional and mentor discussed the practice’s pros and cons.
Managing by wandering around gives you an in-the-trenches view of what’s going on that you won’t gain while hunkered down in your safe office bunker.
“It allows you to be in-the-business so you can see what’s happening for real rather than having to rely on info that’s bound to be filtered in some way or other,” Slater said.
Managing by wandering around is part of active listening. If you’re truly wandering and really listening to understand, you’ll detect and act on issues in their infancy before they grow up to bite you and your organization.
“Seeing those issues from a different perspective — perhaps one with experience and certainly with a strategic hat on — will always be useful,” Slater said.
“Managers and leaders at all levels will have a far stronger attachment to reality if they incorporate management by wandering about into their way of operating,” he said. “It might come naturally to some, but that shouldn’t stop anyone adopting the approach.”
Simply engaging in the practice can yield surprising results.
“Many people forget that they’ll pick up on far more information by osmosis,” Slater said. “They probably won’t realize it until they use that as part of some decision making in the future.
“They might not even realize they used it,” he said. “It’s become their gut feeling.”
Stop, look and listen
The downside of wandering around is if you treat it as a walk around the block without pausing to take in the sights and sounds. Mere presence does not cause problems to go away.
“One of the downsides — at least when you first begin or start off in a new company or group — is that people will be confused and potentially think you’re just going for a walk — not doing your job,” Slater said.
“In one place I worked, the CEO clearly liked to walk about and approached someone who was smoking too close to one of the buildings,” Slater said. “He told the person to stop smoking. But because he wasn’t recognized, the CEO was told to go away in no uncertain terms.”
In the workplace of today, gig economy and virtual teams, managing by wandering around is even more relevant.
A remote workforce adds to the challenge of wandering around. Amtrak tickets aren’t cheap. This is where Skype or other technology helps wandering while still retaining a personal touch if done well.
“The ability to see what’s happening doesn’t have to be limited to being physically there, but doesn’t it need a little more creative thinking?” Slater said. “Checking in with someone online or via Skype is easy, but does it truly allow you to just ‘see what’s going on’?
“You can get a sense of how things are by being a member of groups on social networks,” he said. “However, whether others would be comfortable to know ‘the boss’ is part of the group is debatable.”
For a leader, wandering around is crucial. You not only have your ear open to issues, but also pick up ideas to implement. Either way, the results are passed along to management and the rest of the workforce.
“Management by wandering about is my natural approach and was something I did before I’d even heard of the term,” Slater said. “Likewise, it’s something I’d admired and respected in others. That may have something to do with not liking to stay seated for too long.”
Leaders of global businesses must take the extra effort not to be perceived as hidden away in their ivory towers. They — more than anyone else — need to make a point of getting out and about regularly so it’s commonplace, not square-filler special occasions.
“Those leaders can still walk about, but it certainly does take some planning and can’t be off the cuff,” Slater said. “Even with the web and social media, being there in person really does matter — with clients and the supply-chain, too.
“Leaders have to be seen,” he said. “That really is part of the ‘job description.’ If that’s not what you want to do, then maybe leadership isn’t for you. Management by wandering about gives you this, and you just have to get on with it.”
Managing by wandering around must be part of leaders’ regular routines — and not just 15-minute appointment viewing. If should be something they look forward to, not dread.
“Given that I now work for myself, managing by wandering around can tend to include doing so via social media,” Slater said. “In many ways that’s too easy.
“Getting out and about for real is what counts — always has,” he said. “You can’t ‘feel the pulse’ via an iPhone or laptop.”
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