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MBWA still works

MBWA or management by walking around has been in practice since Hewlett Packard made it popular in the 1970s. Of course, other companies were practicing a variant of MBWA too. They just didn’t care to brand and promote what seemed like a logical thing to do at that time.

That said, most modern-day management thinkers don’t feel MBWA is as effective as it used to be. They primarily cite the lack of practicality (since most teams work remotely these days) and the need to have more “space,” autonomy, and of course, the millennials! But I think it’s a load of BS. Sure, it’s inconvenient but it’s just as effective as it used to be in the 70s. In fact, even more.

I’m always stopping by our stores—at least 25 a week. I’m also in other places: Home Depot, Whole Foods, Crate & Barrel. … I try to be a sponge to pick up as much as I can.

Howard Schultz, Starbucks (Fortune, “Secrets of Greatness”) (Source: Peters, Tom. The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence . John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.)

If it was good enough for Howard Schultz, it surely can work for you. Provided, you know what MBWA really is. But for that, you’ve got to know what it’s not:

  1. An “official visit”
  2. A distracted manager/senior manager/director/vice-president/president/CEO on the floor
  3. An opportunity to expound on your opinions, theories, and beliefs
  4. A ramp to show off your Armani suit or that super-expensive designer neck tie

The only reason to practice MBWA is to listen, engage, connect, and learn about your people, their challenges, and know how best you can support them to improve the situation.

And if you think it’s not feasible, because your teams are dispersed or working remotely (in 5 different countries) figure out a way to meet them anyway. Create a proposal for a travel budget no matter how cash-strapped the situation maybe. Here’s what Tom Peters say:

If I were leading an important, dispersed project team, I would find some way—begging, borrowing, stealing, or using personal funds if necessary—to make the rounds. For want of a better term, I’ll call it MBFFA—Managing by Frequent Flying Around.

Source: Peters, Tom. The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence . John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.

If your company still doesn’t fund these visits or you’re broke and think Tom Peters can afford it, here’s a viable alternative you can consider — call them. On a regular basis. These could be a simple “no agenda” calls with the whole group or a “getting to know you” one-on-one calls every now and then.

Yes, I know, it sounds weird but you’ve got to do this should you aspire to be truly hands-on with your biggest priorities as a leader — serving and helping your team grow.

I call sixty CEOs [in the first week of the year] to wish them happy New Year.

Hank Paulson, former CEO, Goldman Sachs/former U.S. secretary of the treasury. (Source: Peters, Tom. The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence . John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.)

If Hank Paulson can, so can you since I’m not asking you to call in a bunch of CEOs just for the heck of it. Setting up frequent calls with your team members can help you “stay close to the ground” and build great rapport that will pay dividends in the long run. (Provided your intentions are pure and not to just “score” points, people can sense such things out quickly.)

MBWA isn’t out of fashion. Nor is it going anywhere. What needs to happen is for leaders to their vision, mission, and strategy will only take them so far. Real progress happens when they invest time in knowing and growing their people. And you can’t do that from your desk. Get moving.