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How to Make Management by Walking Around Actually Work

Leadership small talk builds relationships

Management “by walking around” topped the business leadership advice list a number of years ago, and still sells books. Credit for the original idea variously is given to an HP manager from the Seventies, or to Abraham Lincoln.

Read a biography of Lincoln and you will see that he indeed did a lot of “walking around” as part of his management style. He visited army camps unannounced. He hung out at the telegraph office. He walked the streets of Washington going from department to department, in an age before airtight Secret Service details.

One critical factor in his wanderings that comes through: A balance towards praise and encouragement. His travels seemed to have had a purpose, too. While burning off nervous energy was one goal, he also sought people out to get their feedback on the problems that were bedeviling him.

I contrast that to a senior vice president who worked for American Express in the 80s and 90s. He walked around the office a lot, but his purpose was just to unwind and clear his own head. He power-walked around the floor without stopping to talk to anyone, at a speed that did not invite interruption.

We recommend you emulate Lincoln in your own perambulations around the office rather than that old Amex SVP. Take these steps:

Have a purpose. Figure it out before you head out. Keep a journal of your interactions on each walk. Keep track of each conversation so that you can remember it, and fulfill any commitments made.

Log whom you have praised. Track how often. Keep attention evenly spread. Track in your journal each person with whom you have spoken, so that you include all staff in a balanced way over time. Also track praise given, to keep that evenhanded and objective, too. Check this record before each walk. Decide whom needs some attention and make that part of your purpose. If you notice that you haven’t had the chance to connect with a specific employee in two weeks, that becomes a paramount goal of your next walk.

Understand the rhythm of the office. Keep all schedules, tasks and assignments top of mind. Walk about when people are not crushed against deadlines and too stressed to chat for a few minutes (which you also need to note and address in a different way.)

Share praise publicly. Share critiques privately.

Ask questions. Delve into feedback. Draw others into creative conversations. Set times to continue interesting conversations more formally in a scheduled meeting.

Include news from “outside.” How has the work of the team been viewed upstairs? What exciting sales successes have occurred?

Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. These conversations will all have outcomes of sorts. You come to immediate agreement on follow-up with each person involved, and take responsibility for seeing the tasks through to conclusion.

Management by Walking Around is great shorthand for staying actively involved with your team, deepening relationships and exploring their daily work lives. All with the idea of making those work lives more engaging and productive.

If you have questions, contact Brooke or Dave!

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