I could feel the nails being driven though my feet as I stopped at her desk. I took a deep breath and pasted a smile on my face.
“How was your weekend?” I stuttered. I took another deep breath and released the tension in my jaw.
“How did your son do at the provincials? Did you go with him?”
She couldn’t see the tightness in my chest and jaw or knots in my stomach. Or the catch in my throat.
But I soldiered on, building my company one chat, one connection at a time.
I was MBWA-ing although it might have appeared that I was wandering aimlessly through my office, chatting with my salespeople.
“Did your mom get over her cold?”
“What are your plans for the weekend?”
I hate small talk.
I felt like my feet were nailed to the floor. I needed them nailed or I would stride away in frustration.
I was overwhelmed. I managed an office of 20 people. I recruited and trained so the office would grow. And on top of that, I was still a vital part of the sales volume. I needed to keep selling so the bills got paid.
Something needed to change. If they all just sold a bit more, I could focus on building the business. I could work on the business instead of in the business.
Oh, what a happy day that would be.
I needed to develop a cohesive, productive team. And I needed to do it soon. Soon as in before I gave birth to my son, due in just a few months.
I’d heard this expression, “People don’t care how much you know ‘til they know how much you care.”
I was determined to show them how much I cared. As much as I hate small talk, small talk builds relationships, trust. I knew that. So, feet metaphorically nailed to the floor, I small-talked.
Quickly, oh, so quickly, things changed. Within three weeks, the conversations switched.
“I am having trouble with this client; any idea how I can work with her?”
“I don’t know how to structure this deal. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I met with some people last week and they chose to buy from someone else. What am I doing wrong?”
Management by walking around, MBWA, was popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the 1980s and implemented by managers in all kinds of businesses.
One of my gym buddies, a mechanic in a large car dealership, told me this story:
“The previous owner used to come out to the shop at least once a month. He would talk to us about us, ask about our families, see how things were for us. We felt valued, important to the success of the business. The new owner has never been back here and doesn’t even know what we look like.”
My friend moved on to a new opportunity. Twenty years of intellectual property walked out the door.
I make a point of having a personal, different connection with each of my people. As an example, one of my people always has a can of peanuts on his desk. I stop for peanuts and have my little chat.
If he is out of peanuts, I buy some and secretly put them on his desk. It’s connection. MBWA is simple but powerful. And it yields great benefits.
We get to know our people. We learn about their strengths, concerns, successes and even their limitations.
Our people get to know us. People trust someone they see regularly.
My experience has been that when I have made a decision they disagree with, my people gave me grace, simply because they know me and feel comfortable enough to let me know their thoughts.
When something happens, the whole story is learned because people from all sides of the story tell what they know in an informal way. We learn more this conversation than from an “incident report” or the abrupt email no one made time to read.
The opportunity is created for casual, open discussion about problems and challenges, and it provides for quicker resolution.
Good information creates the opportunity for significant and valuable influence. And the influence can flow both ways. Front line ideas are often the most practical. Leadership decisions are sounder when made with information from beyond the four walls of the leader’s office.
For the foreseeable future, people from across business sectors will be working from home.
How can we MBWA in the post-COVID world?
Make time for connection. Depending on the previous relationship and patterns, the frequency will vary.
It is up to us, as managers and leaders, to be proactive in our connection. We also need to be casual, but systematic in our approach.
Maybe we connect through a quick text or email. Zoom and phone calls allow for two-way communication, which is always better for connection.
If there is a common office online communication channel, make a “wins” category so people can post their successes for all to see. And as leader, you can post successes you discover as you virtually MBWA.
Respond quickly to challenges. Note if someone seems quiet and reconnect.
And just because someone is working remotely, we should not become micro-managers.
Maybe mail a card with a personal note and a gift certificate for a local coffee shop.
Or a pizza gift certificate that the whole family could enjoy would remind the team member of their value. Or how about four hours of a cleaning service?
Small talk. Wander around both in person and virtually. Show care.
All of these build trust and connection. I see the stability and success of the company shifting in the right direction.
And most importantly, I feel the nails being pulled from my feet.