Crash course: Management by walking around

Tom Peters made this bureaucracy-buster famous 40 years ago, but it's easier said than done.

by Natasha Abramson
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2020

As your company grows from ten people to 50 to 200 to 5,000 people, a suspicion starts to creep in. As a leader, you no longer know everyone by name, and most of what you know about the day to day operations of the business come from your own direct reports. So how can you be sure you’re not inadvertently managing the company you think you have, rather than the one you actually have?

Many businesses have been undone when communication between top floor and shop floor breaks down. Remote, isolated CEOs lose the ability to influence culture. Valuable information - such as when a frontline staff member sees a business threat or has an idea for a business opportunity - gets lost in layers in hierarchy. Growth stagnates.

‘Managing by walking (or wandering) around’ is one approach to solve this problem. Popularised by Tom Peters in the early 80s management bestseller In Search of Excellence, the idea actually originated with former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, John Young. 

The essence is that rather than being stuck at your desk week after week, you physically place yourself where the work is happening with employees, suppliers and customers. 

Start at the bottom: The first thing Roger Whiteside, CEO of Greggs, does when he starts a new job is try to understand the operation on the ground. “Every time I take a new role now, I go straight to the shop floor and spend a week or two there. Then when I go to the head office and they try to tell me how the thing’s run, I know more about it than they do,” says Whiteside.

Be physically accessible: Management by walking around doesn’t work if you don’t leave your corner office. “We've got a really big atrium where everybody comes and goes, sits and eats, chats and has meetings. As much as possible I will base myself in that atrium,” said Joanna Swash, CEO of MoneyPenny. 

“People will stop and chat. I will stop people if they come past,” said Swash, who also makes herself available on the company’s in-house social platform, Workplace from Facebook.

Cultivate serendipitous exchange: Positioning yourself in the heart of the action is less likely to work if your office is more cubicles-and-corridors than massive atrium. Serena Borghero, editor of SteelCase’s 360 Magazine, advocates removing as many barriers as possible between the leadership team and the rest of the workforce. 

An example she suggests is situating high stools and high tables in walkways. “It encourages you to actually stop and talk for 10 or 15 minutes. And most likely those short conversations are the ones that are really going to spark something useful.” 

Be psychologically accessible: You can walk around all you like, but people are unlikely to approach you if your demeanour is menacing and aloof. Swash advocates an approach of openness and transparency with her employees. “I hope that they don't see a different kind of person at work to when I am at home with my family or whatever else I'm doing,” says Swash, who tries to get to know employees’ stories to help her remember faces. “They trust you as a friend - you trust your friends, you don't always trust your work colleagues.” 

When things get difficult a pow wow can be called where a problem is shared in a safe space. “It's about creating those moments that people can tell you honestly what they think. They trust you either to give them a really good reason why it has to be that way or to go and fix the problem that they might have seen in the business.” 

Image credit: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP via Getty Images

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