How to Be the Leader Your Employees Want to See Walk in the Door

How to Be the Leader Your Employees Want to See Walk in the Door


Familiar with the term ‘management by walking around’? It’s time you got to know and practice the art of ‘MBWA.’


9 min read

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When your team sees you coming, what’s their first reaction? Is it …

  • “Awesome, I’m so glad she’s here! I can’t wait to tell her my new idea!” — or:
  • “Oh crap, what does he want now?”

Regardless of the pronouns involved, management by walking around (MBWA)  is what’s at stake here. The term, of course, refers to the practice of managers randomly strolling through their company locations, stopping to chat or observe, all in an unplanned fashion. Sound like a breeze? It isn’t: MBWA can be one of the hardest competencies for fast-growing startup leaders to master.

Related: 5 Tips to Make Managing Employees Less Stressful for Everyone

And no wonder: It didn’t used to be so difficult,” you’re probably thinking to yourself. “When my team was small and scrappy, ideas flowed freely. Everyone knew what was going on.”

But change is inevitable: You’ve added new management layers. You’ve expanded to remote locations. Nowadays, you need to put in more effort just to get out and find out what’s going on. And, when you see something stupid (because the larger your team, the more you can guarantee stupid stuff happening), you may find it natural to let your raw emotions fly. “My employees should know better, right?” you’re asking yourself.

The fact is, though, that everyone’s watching; and before you know it, your efforts to build trust and engagement as you walk around your business, have backfired. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. Done well, MBWA is an incredible way to build trust, reinforce strategic priorities and hear what’s in the hearts and on the minds of the people closest to your customer. As speakers on management and the authors of a book on the subject, we two are huge believers in the transformative power of MBWA.

But the sad truth is, every day we hear stories of sloppy MBWA efforts that have had exactly the opposite impact and sabotaged leaders’ influence and impact. Despite good intentions, some of these leaders would have been better off better getting in their steps outside, in the parking lot, far away from their team.

The good news, though, is that with some focus, you can reverse those negative steps and easily ensure the best ROI for your MBWA.

First step? Avoid the following common traps associated with “Oh, crap, here (he/she) comes.”

1. You point out everything that’s wrong without celebrating what’s right.  

You issue “pointers,” but they’re bogged down by the wrong tone and an imbalanced lens. And the result is to suck the life out of your team — unless you comment on what’s working too. “There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ executive visit with my boss,” one retail sales director confided to Karin after a run of tough visits.

“The best you can hope for is to not have a bad one,” he continued. “One of my store managers could be leading the nation in all the important KPIs, but all my boss will notice is the burnt-out light bulb in the breakroom. I have to go behind him and do damage control to rebuild morale every time he goes out.”

2. You do a drive-by.

You come in just long enough to make an appearance, but don’t spend time making any real connection. These visits make employees feel like you’re checking off a to-do list. Equally destructive is your showing up, only to head to a nearby office, where you close the door and take calls. Wandering around takes time. And you won’t invest that.

3You frame your MBWA as a kind of 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 for ideas and concerns. Ask what you can do to be more helpful. 

Next step? Consider some tips to actually elicit that much more desirable reaction of, “Awesome! I’m so glad he’s/she’s here!”

1. Be clear about your most important message.

Before you arrive for your walking tour, consider the main purpose of your visit.

Related: Managing People Is an Art: 32 Ways to Do it Right.

For example, if your main goal is providing clarity, make it a point to talk to as many employees as possible about your biggest goal for the quarter and why it’s important. Strategic storytelling also works great for a visit like this. Share your personal (or customer) stories connecting what you’re asking people to do and the “why” for that action. Celebrate those employees who have made a difference.

Maybe your goal for your MBWA is to uncover issues and best practices. If so, head out on a curiosity tour — where your goal is not to speak but to listen and learn, from employees and customers.

Steve, the CEO of an energy company we know, described, during a coaching session, the benefits of “showing up curious.” “I was getting so frustrated about the lack of sales of our new strategic program,” Steve said. “I had reinforced why this was so important to our company so many times, I was sick of hearing myself talk about it. But the reps just didn’t seem to get it.

“Then one day, I just went into the contact center and took a few customers’ calls myself. I realized how hard our new program was to explain. I learned that our training had not prepared our reps to take those calls. No amount of explaining ‘why this program mattered’ would help until they knew how to answer our customers’ questions.”  

Now, that’s the power of showing up curious.

2. Talk behaviors, not numbers.

As entrepreneurs, we spend lots of time looking at numbers and trends. We get impatient for results to improve. We might even be tempted to leave the team with a numerical challenge: “Improve by 10 percent by the time I come back.”

Now that kind of phrase might be motivating to some, but things will work much better when you focus on one or two behaviors that will help them get there. Suggest ways in which they can find a way to measure those behaviors, and challenge them to focus on that.

For example, instead of challenging your team to improve sales by 10 percent, challenge them to quadruple the number of demos they are doing for customers each day.

3. Celebrate what’s working.

Start by making a human connection: Averie Floyd, a millennial entrepreneur and the founder of Casa Flor Designs, an ethical fashion brand working with artisans in Guatemala to leverage their talents and earn a livable wage, told us that the secret to her team’s reputation for quality “starts with building a genuine and transparent relationship with the artisans.

“We can’t develop trust or reliability if you dive right into talking about the work,” Floyd said. She said she finds that investing time during every visit to truly connect, makes it far easier to give difficult feedback or introduce a new process. 

Then there’s Chris, a sales director Karin worked with during her time as a sales executive.  Once a month Chris told her, he spent several weeks on the road on what he called his “All Store Tour,” which his team jokingly referred to as his “love tour,” visiting every location. He had a big rule for those few weeks: Focus exclusively on recognition and notice what is good. Meanwhile, refrain from immediately addressing issues he might stumble on.

Results always improved during those weeks he was visiting. People loved the “love” and felt encouraged to keep up the good work.

4.  Ask great questions.

If you want to know what’s really going on, ask your employees, and listen to their answers to, some open-ended questions>

  • What’s frustrating our customers?
  • What is the most difficult part of your day?
  • How is this new system making your job easier?
  • How is it making it more difficult?
  • Why is this metric so hard to move?

Do you want to empower your employees even further to give customer feedback, even when you’re not walking around? We interviewed Nate Brown, founder of the CX Accelerator Lab, who explained how he uses a simple USB-connected button to empower employees to give real-time customer feedback.

Using this “CX Magic Button” yourself, you can integrate your virtual walking-around information with real-time data from the button and on your next visit, talk in a more focused way that includes everyone’s input.

5.  Catalyze the sharing of practices.

If you’re out and about, chances are you see people in other offices or locations implementing some great best practices. Leverage these observations for some cross-pollination, e.g., “You know who’s doing this well? Laura in Poughkeepsie. You should give her a call. Tell her I sent you.”

This way, you’ve just got yourself a two-for-one:  Laura gets recognized and you’ve spread her best practices contribution, which makes everyone more productive.

Think about it: Your MBWA practice can transform performance and morale or it can tank them both. Go with the first outcome: Master your ability to make a huge difference through small interactions with focused intention, insightful questions and ample encouragement.

Related: The 5 Habits of Successful Employee Management

Soon, you’ll be that leader everyone wants to see walk through the door. 



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