Karin’s Leadership Articles

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.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Steve Borek

    I have no experience in this area.

    My gut says to do away with MBWA. Don’t make it a special event.

    The leader needs to be immersed with their team on a consistent basis and see things from their perspective.

    I know one CEO who moves their desk every six months to a different part of HQ to experience a different perspective.

    • Karin Hurt

      Steve, I so agree with you. Casual interactions with intentional connection are the most meaningful. I love teh idea of the roving CEO desk.

  2. Jim Ryan

    MBWA can turn into seagull management, they fly in, make a lot of noise, crap all over everything, then fly out. 🙂

    • Karin Hurt

      Jim, What a fantastic metaphor.

  3. Mike Anderson

    Deep inside I know it is exactly what i need to be doing more of, it makes sense, its best practice, it is what I would want more of from my leaders so why is it so hard? I remember a situation we had with a particular manager that was having serious issues at his location, his performance in all areas was suffering. He was a new manager that had taken over from a successful manager that was hitting all targets all the time. I paid a visit and found a situation that I will never forget.

    The first glaring problem was he was locked in his office under a mountain of paperwork, as we talked about the work on his desk it became very obvious to me that the work on his desk existed because of the lack of face time with his front line staff. As we thumbed through the documents we recognized that they were all problems that could be resolved by working with, training and supervising his staff. He was caught in a eternal circle of problems that existed because he was locked in his office trying to fix the things that existed because he was locked in his office…

    • Karin Hurt

      Mike, What a terrific story and a meaningful example. I’m so glad you shared it with us.

  4. Terri Klass

    I think that when managers visit their troops and just schmooze they gain so much insight into what is really happening on the front. These visits should not be scary or formal, just a time to catch up. By putting their teams at ease and telling them that this time together is just a touch base time, leadership can cultivate a more transparent work space.

    I know a president of a firm who frequently goes out on the floor to connect and learn. She is beloved and trusted.

    Thanks Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, I so agree when done well, hanging out and wandering around is invaluable.

  5. LaRae Quy

    I love the idea you generated in your call center with the introverted manager! What a clever way of enabling her to connect with the team without putting her in an awkward position of trying to summon up something of interest to both of them.

    I had a supervisor once who was great at this. He remembered people’s names and the things they had last talked about—it was very effective because he made a personal connection with everyone in the room. The big thing—it was genuine. No gotchas or prep time needed for him…

  6. Alli Polin

    I worked for a very independent division of a big company and we worked hard to create a great culture for our team. Still, every time a senior leader was due to come into the office, even if it was only going to be walking by cubes on the way to the senior team meeting, tensions soared, attire suddenly became the most important thing anyone could talk about and we played it up so much, for the meeting to be anything less than intimidating was impossible. Great insights here, Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      Alli, Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think that often people are intimidated just by the title even if they are wandering around well. I am always surprised when people tell me how scared they were to first meet me. It’s important for execs to realize that there’s normally a starting fear factor that needs to be overcome.

  7. Marga Dela Cruz

    Nice creative idea on that call center! Personally I don’t like MBWA in a way that it makes me feel like a prisoner. Giving the staff their freedom of time as they have been observed from a distance on the other hand would allow them to grow and be more insightful.

    • Karin Hurt

      Marga, so awesome to have you join the conversation. Ahh, “the freedom of time.” Great add.

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