In all fairness, I started using the principle of Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) at the start of my leadership journey. It is, for me, not just a nice-to-do activity as a leader, but rather a fundamental principle of leadership that I put into practice.

When done correctly, it demonstrates three things as a leader:

  • That you care about the people you work with
  • It makes you visible. People don’t have to search for you, especially if your role requires you to be away from the office much of the time or always engaged in meetings.
  • You can demonstrate an attentive listening ability to your team.

In his article titled Management by Wandering Around: A Potent Arrow in the Manager’s Quiver (Appel Knowledge Services, Ask Magazine June, 2009) Noel W. Hinners described how as the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the late 1970s, applying MBWA opened his eyes to another aspect of leadership.

He wrote: “… coming in early (not to get more work done, but to avoid Washington traffic) I’d get to talk with the people who made the museum tick: the security folks and the janitorial staff. Security had the essential job of protecting exhibits and the public, all the while being pleasant to the visitors. Janitors made the museum hum, cleaning it thoroughly after closing and before opening the next day. The importance pyramid was upside down relative to the organizational one….”
Coming in early and being attentive to conversations with front-line staff allowed him to appreciate them even more.

Many leaders oppose MBWA, and for very valid reasons. They will point to the fact that they can achieve similar results by:
a) Building a strong culture that promotes an open-door policy that encourages employees to step forward and update them or raise issues or
b) Calling employees into their office as frequently as possible and then using that opportunity to seek their feedback.

But can they? I have no issues with maintaining an open-door policy, but it’s not a replacement for MBWA. I would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive. While I will not attempt to batter the concept of open door policy, it does have its limitations when used as a direct replacement to regular MBWA.

Leaders that encourage an open-door policy expect that employees walk up to you and be bold enough to share their needs and concerns. MBWA, on the other hand, involves leaders going out to meet team members at their locations, listening to their concerns, celebrating their successes and showing interest in their circumstances.

Earlier on, I mentioned an important phrase, and I will quickly return to it. I said, “When done properly.” MBWA is hugely beneficial as a means of building a relationship of trust between leaders and their workforce. What are the qualities I would expect a leader to exhibit in conducting MBWA? Firstly, itneeds to be perceived as genuine, and not merely an act of tokenism. A leader should dedicate time to this purpose and not approach it as: “Oh, I have a few minutes before my next meeting, how shall I fill the time?” For this exercise to be valuable, you’ll need to bear the following in mind:

Practice active listening — It’s not an opportunity for you to show off your intelligence or authority. Ask questions and show that you care about the responses. Take notes (I would always ask the consent of the employee, so they feel safe to speak). Remember, it’s not a way for you to name names when sharing your observation with your leadership team later.

Be Genuine — I cannot stress enough the importance of turning up and showing you care — not just about the job, task, or process, but also about the individual. How are they? How did they get to work that morning? How is their family? This is an opportunity to know them, their hobbies, families, etc. What do they work on passionately outside of work?

Convey an air of being relaxed — Employees will feel it and be more relaxed in their engagement with you. The conversation should be professional and casual. That is how the team will feel comfortable enough to share.

Enjoy it — Again, it requires an investment of time and energy. It’s not a once-off activity or once in a quarter — the more spontaneous, the better.

One note of caution is that MBWA is also not an avenue for enthusiastic leadership to effect “knee jerk” reaction to concerns or issues. It’s fact-finding, and it’s essential that employees are not always looking for you to bring an immediate solution to the table. Take comments and views away, and get a second opinion before taking action.

Avoid the temptation to turn it into a “town hall” meeting. This is not about you sharing news about the company but rather a chance to talk with the team.

In closing, I would like to quote Noel Hinners again in the same article I had referred to earlier.

Later on, in his career, as he applied the principles of MBWA, he discovered that: “… MBWA can be especially useful in gaining insight into significant issues that are bothering folks, and are not usually evident. This was brought home to me when I queried a manager as to why we were having so many issues with HQ and another center. Our informal chatter soon led to him telling me that he was dealing with extreme problems at home.

It was affecting his ability to function well at work. This helped me devise a graceful way to reassign him, removing management pressures and enabling him to devote more time to family matters. This was not a one-time occurrence. During my career, I found numerous instances of non-work issues being a root cause of management problems; developing a sensitivity to this can often help to resolve those problems.”

Three key things came from this simple example of MBWA, as shared by Hinners:

  • Hinners called it an “informal chatter” but it was detailed enough for the team member to tell him about extreme problems he was having at home. Will people in your team find you trustworthy enough to share their issues with you. Put differently; are you a caring leader?
  • He used the word “graceful” when reassigning the employee to other duties. Graceful, in my mind, means a caring, non-judgemental attitude — one where members of staff don’t feel that sharing personal issues will cost them their job.
  • Lastly, Hinners encouraged this employee to focus on family issues, yet still be able to function at work. I have met many people who are struggling at home, yet don’t want to take time off work because work allows some relief from issues at home. They need a leader that will be understanding and supportive of this.

In summary, MBWA is a handy, cheap, and useful tool for a leader to implement, that deepens relationships with teams. It requires an investment of time and energy and the willingness to listen. Above all, it’s a good leadership culture to embed in any organization. If the leadership cares, beyond the bottom-line, to the people who come in each day to make it happen, the long-term benefits to the organization should not be underestimated.