First published in the Globe and Mail, Mar. 28, 2003

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Remember the notion of management by walking around? It's an old idea, some even say a tired one. After all, how can it be relevant when information speeds along the electronic highway in an incomprehensible blur?

Why should we bother walking around when we can send e-mails with a point and click?

Some senior executives boast of daily e-mails topping 150. Imagine how much time it must take to read and respond to all that. Yet as these "leaders" tote up their electronic status, they are increasing the distance between themselves and their customers and employees.

Complicating the picture, shareholders -- and CE0s -- seem increasingly focused on quarterly earnings warnings. Managers, in turn, are haunted by monthly budgets. Supervisors then obsess over weekly results. And workers are pressured to increase hourly productivity. Who has time for walking around?

Rudy does -- and he expects his people to as well.

Rudy is the vice-president of a successful, 5,000-strong Canadian service company. For him, electronic communication is a tool, not an excuse to avoid getting out of the office and being in touch with customers, teams and innovators.

He colour codes his e-mail, giving priority to the concerns of customers and his people. His priority prescription is communicated to senders. He tells his managers: "Please don't cc a cc. I won't read it." He returns long e-mails, asking for only the salient points.

He is polite but firm when he says "please don't send me a book." He cautiously weaves his way through the e-mails that waste time. And he enlists his executive assistant's support in planning crucial communications.

The time he saves is used for spontaneous, hands-on contact with people. He adamantly and politely expects his managers to do the same in every area of his business.

The point is this: Management by walking around (MBWA) is as valid in 2003 as it was in 1982, when Tom Peters and Bob Waterman popularized Hewlett-Packard's mantra in their bestselling book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies.

That's because it's still vitally important to understand what's changing in our markets, with our customers' lifestyles and with our employees' desire to deliver results and innovate. It's still imperative to figure out the critical corporate issues that can flow from that information.

Consider: Strategic plans can guide us to new market penetration and share of existing market expectations, but they're innately inflexible. It's direct contact and careful listening that helps a leader understand crucial market shifts and how to adapt to them.

But how do you convince your people to pry themselves away from their keyboards, get out of their offices, or pick up the phone and listen and learn?

Initially, by example. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "What you are . . . thunders so that I cannot hear what you say." Move away from the keyboard and find out what's really going on out there.

Next: Invent efficient and effective corporate communication processes. (Remember Rudy's personal e-mail formula.) Once you've done that, you and your team can expand the ideas to intra-office communications, in fact, to all information exchange processes.

That will help your managers accept what they may initially view as your somewhat unreasonable expectation to increase their time commitment to "direct" contact with people. Then you'll be able to frame your expectations in immodest terms: Ask them to commit as much as 60 per cent of their time to MBWA.

In the end, if we, as leaders, fail to develop a customer focus, learn how to listen to and respect our teams, encourage innovation and then reinforce these goals with meaningful incentives, we run the risk that our competitors will.

We must learn faster than they do. As business guru Arie De Geus noted: "The ability to learn faster than your competition may be your only sustainable competitive advantage." MBWA is still our most powerful tool to encourage learning and innovation at a faster pace than our rivals.

To help you as you walk around, ask yourself:

  • Do you focus on short-term financial results or build teams with long-term vision?

  • Do you expect leaders to be in touch with customers and service delivery people? Do they commit at least 60 per cent of their time to this goal?

  • Do you and do your leaders ask penetrating, polite and sometimes unreasonable questions? And do you listen intently to the answers?

  • Is your volume of information flow a problem or do you redesign communication and feedback systems for efficiency?

  • Do you focus on issues critical to your company's success: things like customers' lifestyles, your people's dignity, your people's willingness to be productive and your corporation's ability to learn and innovate?

  • Do you manage every aspect of your time and leave the excuses unused and on the shelf?

With these questions in mind, with sincere caring and steely determination, you'll give new life to the word empowerment. MBWA is worth 60 per cent of your work time.

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