Get out from behind your desk to survive the downturn

Jun 17 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Chatting to your team about how things are going can easily fall by the wayside in a downturn as everyone simply scrambles for results. But if you want to ride out a slowing economy, walking about and reassuring your employees needs to become more important than ever.

Walking the talk, or management by walking around, has long been recognised as an effective management technique.

Yet, according to executive coaching firm ClearRock, it's actually even more important in a downturn to carve out time to get feedback on products and services from your employees.

In a slow economy, the benefits derived from doing this can be the difference between profit and loss, and even survival, it has argued.

The concept of management by walking around (MBWA) traces its origins back to the 1940s when it was developed by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett-Packard.

It became particularly popular in the 1980s after being included in the book In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman Jr.

"However, with advancements in electronic communication such as e-mail and company intranets, and the development of more modern management techniques, MBWA has fallen out of favour somewhat," said Annie Stevens, managing partner with ClearRock.

But now could be a good time for more businesses to reinstate the practice, she argued.

"There has been a greater tendency to try to manage employees by e-mail, memos or in meetings, rather than managers and executives getting out of their offices, walking among the employees they manage and talking with them. Many companies are missing out on the benefits they can get from this," said Stevens.

"MBWA is the original hands-on management," added Greg Gostanian, managing partner with ClearRock. "To realise the most benefits, however, managers must be trained in how to do it right."

Key to an effective MBWA approach is to prepare yourself for hearing feedback and insights that you may not agree with.

"If the purpose of conducting MBWA is only to reinforce your current beliefs, you should save everyone's time and don't do it. The goal should be to uncover honest and objective contributions from people you manage without them feeling they need to tell you only what you want to hear," said Stevens.

It is also important that you do it, and seen to be doing it, yourself. "Don't bring a group of assistants or aides with you. Talk with each employee individually on a one-on-one basis. This will encourage the most forthright contributions without intimidating contributors," added Gostanian.

In practical terms, it is a good idea to ask each employee what he or she does and how they feel their job could be done better.

"Develop an understanding for each individual's role in the process so their contributions will have more meaning to both them and you. Ask them how they feel their own jobs can be improved, as well as about workplace policies and practices in general," said Stevens.

Don't, too, be afraid to show your human side. "Don't confine your talks to about business matters. Find out a little about each employee without prying into their personal lives. Asking them, 'Tell me a little bit about yourself' will open up the average employee, who will volunteer details he or she wants to share with you," said Gostanian.

It is also important not to be critical, because that is not what the process is all about.

"If you find that an employee isn't performing his or her job correctly, don't criticise or attempt to change the behaviour on the spot. Make a mental note and address the situation at another time and in another setting," said Stevens.

It can also be a good idea to reward particularly valuable contributions in some way or other.

"Employee contributions that can make a big difference in cost savings, time or other quantifiable ways should receive some sort of recognition," said Gostanian.

"Although this doesn't have to be a monetary reward, some type of certificate or company memorabilia will demonstrate that you are ready to share credit, recognize and reward good ideas," he added.