In the late ’80s, just before heading to college, I was introduced to a management principle that has stuck with me ever since.
I was one of a handful of students that were selected from NYC public schools to participate in a new IBM internship program.
I worked at its management development division located on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan.
Back then, companies like IBM, GE, and GM had their internal training departments to teach their leadership management principles. GE still has theirs in Crotonville, NY, to this day. The company’s leaders learn the core elements of many important management principles, like Six-Sigma.
After graduating from the copy room — where all interns started — I was moved to this elite team focused on delivering the latest training videos directly to senior IBM managers.
On my desk was a set of sealed manila envelopes containing a VHS tape and the name of the executive. I was asked to get it to them and make sure they watched it.
“I am counting on you,” said my supervisor. She seemed keen on taking me under her wing.
She explained that these people were tough as nails and didn’t enjoy being forced to comply with this program and extremely busy.
“They will avoid you, don’t let them.”
The next day, I put on my best suit and started plotting my attack. I placed my first call to one of the executives on the list. I got his secretary, and like clockwork, she started putting up barriers.
“Well, Mr. Rogers (not his real name) can’t do this now. Maybe you should come back next week.”
I continued down the list and got the same results.
I then thought to myself, “what if I just show up?” I figured if I showed up in person, it would be hard for them to turn me away.
So I used the Interoffice directory to find their offices in the IBM tower on 57th street. It was a beautiful black, gleaming building full of millions of dollars of artwork, modern design elements, and it’s own cafeteria — fancier than the one in the Googleplex.
(They have since closed that office.)
I randomly picked one from the list.
The security guards gave me the route. I took the turbo elevator to the requisite floor and confidently walked up to the secretary’s desk.
“Hello, I am here to see Mrs. Overhouse (not her real name),” I said politely with a hint of authority.
“And, who might you be?” She said with a British accent.
“I am John Belizaire, and I have an urgent package that must be hand-delivered and returned to my supervisor today.”
She gave me a skeptical look.
She then picked up the phone, pressed one button, and whispered into the receiver explaining the situation to her boss.
“You can leave the package with me.” She directed.
“Sorry, my instructions are to hand it to Mrs. Overhouse and return it to IMD (IBM management development),” I said.
She gave me another look. This time it said, “cheeky fellow.”
She stood up and walked into Mrs. Overhouse’s office.
In a few minutes, Mrs. Overhouse swung open her door with a frustrated pull, ushering her assistant out ahead of her.
She stepped out to see who was making this bold demand for her presence.
She gave me a piercing look.
She scanned me with her blue eyes, that seemed to hover over her face. She was wearing a white suit dress that went well with her salt and pepper hair.
After the scan, she invited me into her office with a wave of her hand.
It turns out my random selection was a gem.
Mrs. Overhouse was one of IBM’s top managers. She headed up their typewriter business unit and led its move to digital machines.
After getting to know me, she shared the secrets to her rise. She was impressed with my initiative.
She even offered to review the rest of my list and call each manager for me to arrange a similar “sit down” with them.
“Well, let’s watch the video!” She said with enthusiasm.
The subject of the video was Management By Walking Around (MBWA).
I finished my assignment on time with 100% compliance, having used a principle I didn’t even know existed.
Many years later, in a management trading course at Intel, I learned more about MBWA.
It comes from a style of management created by the founders of Hewlett Packard in the 1970s.
MBWA refers to a style of business management that involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an unplanned movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved, or scheduled times.
The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.
Tom Peters (management guru) covered it in his timeless book, In Search of Excellence.
Andy Grove, Intel’s CEO at the time, exemplified the power of these random walks. I witnessed him do it several times during my tenure there. He’d fly in from California for an impromptu visit of our Oregon operations and the big software team I was on.
“Tell me the truth, where are we really?” He asked fiercely of the General Manager of the software division. Andy had already randomly called the beta users of the video conferencing system, known as Proshare — the flagship product of this group.
The meeting resulted in the CEO committing more resources to the initiative.
“People in the trenches are usually in touch with impending changes early.” — Andy Grove
I have employed the MBWA technique judiciously throughout my career as a CEO.
Here are some examples:
- I would walk the floor of our open office and plop myself down randomly in one of our departments and start a conversation with an employee about their current projects.
- I would arrange mixed department lunches with only a few hours notice, randomly selecting one to two people from each department. At lunch, I’d offer them the opportunity to ask me any questions they wanted and share their concerns.
- I would invite the employees who seemed to often stay late in the office to dinner.
- I would have impromptu meetings with my co-founders to get their read on the business and team.
- I would randomly call our customers or visit them to hear what we could do better.
- I would bring my laptop to our break room and work from there for a few hours — bumping into employees that popped in for coffee or a snack.
- I would call employees off-hours to have candid conversations.
These random walks proved to be one of my most effective management tools.
Here is why.
As a startup matures and grows, it moves to a more decentralized approach to management.
You hire professional managers, develop operating systems, and build dashboards as the new means for getting a picture of the performance of the company.
While this approach dramatically improves the efficiency and scalability of the organization, it comes with a human flaw.
Your leadership will propagate information upward that paints a rosier picture than exists. They are not always doing it maliciously. It’s because your team feels you want them to do what you hired them to do — fix problems.
The result is a filtered, disconnected view of the organization.
Relying solely on this view can be like driving your car, blindly following your GPS, and suddenly finding yourself in the middle of a construction zone or a dead-end street.
(A related mental model is “the map is not the territory.”)
I have enjoyed the following advantages taking these random walks:
- Organizational sentiment — while there are lots of tools to help you understand employee engagement, speaking with your employees can offer a real picture of their sentiment.
- Trust but verify — trust your management team as a default. Plus, verify their view by taking an independent look. Sometimes you uncover opportunities they did not see or solutions they didn’t consider.
- New ideas — deep in the minds of the people who are in the trenches may be solutions to your toughest problems. I share our challenges on these walks and ask for the team’s advice. Their insights often floor me.
The next time you are in your office, wondering what you should do. Take a random walk through your company. You’ll be surprised by what you find.