When MBWA Becomes Oh Crap Here They Come

Nothing could be easier than getting out amongst the troops, wandering around and listening, right? MBWA,or management by wandering around, is one of the truly great management techniques. So why do so many executives royally screw it up, leaving a path of fear and intimidation that takes local management months to recover? Most execs I know who fumble this easy move, start with good intentions: they want to be visible, to demonstrate commitment, to reinforce priorities, to inspect what they expect, and to be helpful. But their poor execution causes their noble  goals to backfire.

Why MBWA Becomes Oh Crap Here They Come (OCHTC)

1. The “Gotcha” Game

With the wrong tone and an imbalanced lens, all those “helpful pointers” feel more like “gotcha.” It’s great to point out what can be done better, along with stories and sharing of best practices, but be sure you’re also looking for the good news. I’ve seen many execs come through sweating all the small stuff that was “wrong” and completely overlooking the huge accomplishments of the team. Sure, they MAY remember to throw away the pizza box in the break room next time, but they’ll CERTAINLY remember that you didn’t even mention their significant sales wins. In some cultures the word on the street is that you “can’t ever have a good executive visit, the best you can do is not have a bad visit.” Trust me, if that’s the case, you’ll get better long-term results by staying in your office.

2. The Drive By

You come in long enough to make an appearance, but don’t spend time making any real connection. Such drive-bys feel like you’re checking off a to-do. Equally destructive is showing up, and heading to a nearby office to close the door and take calls. Wandering around takes time.

3. The High-Maintenance Prep

In anticipation the team runs around making everything just right. Even if you think you’re low maintenance, watch what your local team is doing to prepare. It sends a terrible message to the frontline when local management starts scurrying to “clean up the place” or order special food in advance of your visit. A clean work environment is important for the employees every day, not for the execs. I once had a Director apologize to me that he had not “had the rugs replaced in advance of my visit.” They were filthy and needed replacing, but not for me.

4. The Talking Tour

MBWA is about listening and learning. Sure it’s great to reinforce priorities, but be sure you’re really taking time to listen to ideas and concerns, and to ask what you can do to be most helpful. Listen well, take great notes, follow-up with the person who shared their idea.

A MBWA Secret Weapon

When I was a call center Director, I worked for a Senior VP who was strong, tough and introverted. Wandering around did not come naturally for her. But, she was a good leader who deeply understood the value and made it a point to spend quality time in the centers. So the morning before her visit, we went to each reps desk and color coded their cubes with helium balloons all representing something they had accomplished:  yellow was perfect attendance, red meant they had attained a degree or certification that year, white symbolized they were exceeding goals, etc. We even threw in a few personal ones, like having a baby. That way as she wandered around she had instant conversation starters. Her congratulatory remarks flowed easily into how they were accomplishing their work and where they needed the most help. Plus, the visit felt like an uplifting celebration of the team, not of making things just right for her.

MBWA is powerful and important. Done well, it makes all the difference in the world. Take the time to do it right.