Effective middle managers can become more effective by learning from an old ritual of Australian aborigines.
The “walkabout” was known as a rite of passage for aboriginal boys who would venture into the wilderness for months at a time as part of a spiritual transition to adulthood. Presumably, they would discover more about themselves and their environment as a way of surviving and thriving.
My son did something in a more modern and less risky form with an Outward Bound class during three weeks in the Oregon wilderness. At one point, he had to camp by himself for three deeply introspective days. When he came home, we immediately saw in him a maturing and transforming experience.
Good middle managers don’t have to venture into the wilderness for days, weeks or months to become better at their jobs. Instead, they can use a leadership tactic known as Management By Walking Around, also known as Management By Wandering Around (MBWA).
The Benefits of Exploration
It means they simply quit using emails, phones and meetings as much. Using MBWA, they explore where they work in a way that teaches them more about their jobs, their companies and their fellow employees. That knowledge will make them better managers.
A regular manager walkabout is harder than it sounds for managers with a lot of work to do. They invariably get stuck at their desks with hundreds of emails and phone calls every week. (At least this manager did during decades on the job.)
They may get out of the office only long enough to attend as many as 30 meetings or even more every week. (At least this manager also did during decades on the job.)
The simple act of communicating — emails, phone calls and meetings — can chew up huge chunks of time. What’s left goes to reports, projects and other desk-bound duties demanded by the needs of the business.
Senior and executive managers often have schedules so tightly managed that they can’t do a walkabout. Some of them may have previously used that management tactic back when they had fewer responsibilities and a little more time. Middle managers have more flexibility.
Why MBWA is So Useful
Management by walking around is a leadership tactic that dates back to the 1970s, according to various sources.
In theory, the “wandering” version of it means that a manager makes an unstructured, unplanned visit at random to other employees, equipment or a variety of other places at work.
It is a spontaneous act that may bring spontaneous responses from employees. It is a chance to see them in action and learn more directly what they do each day. On a more serious note, it is a way of checking on employee productivity with a surprise visit.
An essential part of the process involves asking plenty of questions of everyone from managers in other departments to administrative assistants and security guards. Everyone has knowledge to share about some aspect of the business.
It Boosts Employee Morale
MBWA also has a benefit for employee morale. If a higher-level middle manager or senior manager does it, he or she may end up talking to staff who normally don’t see managers that high up. The manager will get to know them and their jobs better. The employees will feel that the higher ups care about their work.
The publisher at a newspaper where I worked early in my career walked by a janitor near my desk a few months after I started. He asked the janitor about his wife and children, knew them by name and mentioned other details about them.
I was shocked that the highest-level manager in a building with more than 100 people knew that much about a janitor’s family. I found out the publisher was an avid practitioner of MBWA. He had a card file with details about every employee that he wrote down from conversations with them. Employees had great respect for him. He knew the business intimately.
MBWA With a Twist
Management by walking around doesn’t have to be a random, unstructured or unplanned act. It can be done with a purpose that adds value to the practice.
A manager with a report to send to another office one floor below can either email it or physically take it there (as well as email a copy of it).
Yes, taking it there takes more time than just emailing. Taking it there also means face-to-face interaction with the receiver along with interaction with other people between the two offices.
That kind of walking around gives a manager the chance to:
1 — Talk to other managers along with way about important issues.
2 — Encourage and praise employees to their faces for recent good work rather than by an impersonal email.
3 — Get a more accurate read of what people really think from their facial expressions and other body language.
4 — Observe whether employees are working or goofing off. Even if they are working, a manager could get important productivity clues about whether they are overwhelmed or underworked.
5 — Build stronger relationships, which is much easier to do in person than by phone or email.
6 — Find out in person how some tasks are actually done, which is useful for planning and managing more effectively.
Higher Status, Higher Impact
At another company where I worked, the CEO also practiced MBWA. Our campus consisted of three buildings across the street from each other. The buildings together had hundreds of employees. The CEO had his office in the corporate headquarters building.
Despite his responsibilities, he would visit our building on a regular basis. It was not uncommon to see him talking at length with non managers. Unlike the other executive, he was not known to have a card file. He had something more impressive — a remarkable memory for names, faces and job duties. His presence made quite a positive impact.
Strangely, an executive two levels down in the same company could not remember the names of some of his own senior managers, nor did he show an interest in what they did. As a result, he did not inspire his people. It was a revealing insight about how not to lead.
Show a Personal Interest
None of this means an executive or senior manager needs to memorize the names and details of every employee. What matters is showing a personal interest in people and the work that they do. It means getting out of the office to ask questions, learn more and find out how the company really operates on a daily basis.
Middle managers with a small staff will make a lesser impact on them by walking around. But there are more people in many companies than just a middle manager’s own staff.
Imagine how much more those middle managers will learn about their companies if they simply get out of the office and walk around on a regular basis. Imagine how that knowledge may improve their job performance and advance their own careers.
They just need to remember to wear comfortable shoes every day.