UK: Sir, Boss, Mr Smith, John.

UK: Sir, Boss, Mr Smith, John. - How low should the CEO go?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How low should the CEO go?

Everyone knows the type: the flamboyant, approachable chief executive who likes nothing more than chatting with the shop-floor staff and whose door is always open. Then, of course, there's the opposite extreme - the boss who (rightly or wrongly) views mucking in as a waste of time and only deals with those a couple of rungs down the corporate ladder. Both styles have their adherents and critics. So, how close should a general be to his or her troops?

Pretty close, reckons Alan Jones, managing director of TNT Express (UK): 'We're all on first name terms, my door's always open and we try to be involved with all staff. We don't expect anyone here to do anything we can't do ourselves.' Sir Clive Thompson, chief executive of Rentokil Initial, takes a rather more distanced view, however. 'There's no should about it - it's what's appropriate for the company. But I would counsel against chief executives who use a "car park" style.' By this, Thompson means the type of situation whereby anyone feels they can come across the boss in the car park and bend his or her ear.

Vicky Wright, managing director of Hay Management Consultants, agrees that it's a case of horses for courses: 'Asda (where chief executive Allan Leighton regularly hobnobs with the staff), for example, is a single company.

But if you're chief executive of a holding company or a highly fragmented company, by walking in all the time, you could be undermining your divisional heads.' Although cautions Wright, 'there should be some element of management by walking about, the critical issue is how you're reaching your top 200 people'.

Jonathan Wilson, a director at consultants Ellis Hayward, takes a rather more pro-people line: 'Napoleon only talked to his inner circle and made such an impact on them that the message was effectively disseminated; most of us need to go a little further.' CEOs, says Wilson, are guardians of corporate culture and process who should 'see - and listen to - as many people as possible ... putting all those weak signals together to protect and develop the culture'.

Alec Reed, chief executive of Reed Executive, believes that it depends on the type of business: 'First there's your own style and secondly there's the type of company and how important people are in the company. People companies need to talk around - it's very difficult to generate ideas in a vacuum. But in a heavily capital-reliant company, maybe some cool thinking away from the coal face would deliver better results.'

Although managerial bien pensants increasingly subscribe to the idea of a friendly, approachable chief exec, we're not all cut out to be men of the people. A false chumminess with staff may seem a good way to find out what your troops think of their line manager, but if done in the wrong way it could make everyone feel uncomfortable. As with many things, it all comes down to personal style, and Reed says, 'It doesn't really matter how you do it as long as you're successful.'

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