3×5 Leadership Note: Leadership by Wandering Around was the first article we wrote and published when we created 3×5 Leadership. To date, it remains the most popular article. That tells us the idea resonates with many. So, to celebrate 3×5 Leadership turning 5-years-old this month, we want to revisit this essential idea and expand on the idea with what we have learned over these years. Enjoy!
The idea of presence remains a critical component to effective leadership. It is an essential ingredient to building trust, deepening connections, and creating shared understanding with those we work with and lead. And while physically being present is the foundation of this idea, it requires so much more like our attitudes, words, and behaviors during those times. Regardless of industry and organizational context, leader presence is necessary; it is something we can enact across physical and digital domains.
The term of management by wandering around (MBWA) was first introduced in a 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman. We chose to adapt the concept by applying leadership, seeing it as leadership by wandering around (LBWA). We emphasize leadership over management because this behavior is a way to focus on people (connections) and inspect the state of things (operations, workplace conditions, etc.) to inform our assessments for needed change. We don’t wander around to manage, easily creating perceptions of micromanaging; we do so to connect, encourage, inform, and become informed. Like leadership, it is focused on people.
We define leadership by wandering around as random “wandering” of organizational spaces to connect with people and inspect the state of things. To clarify, we use the term wandering to represent an unplanned activity. We may actually schedule LBWA time on our calendar (absolutely encouraged!), but we don’t schedule where we specifically go and to whom we specifically talk to. Additionally, the inspection component is focused on remaining informed on the actual state of the organization and its spaces. As Colonel (retired) Dandridge Malone states in his book, Small Unit Leadership, “I use the chain of command to command with…[but] I’ll do whatever I can to make sure I know what’s going on with my outfit.”
Why LBWA is Important
We realize this idea may not be natural for many. So, it’s important to first understand the intent and benefits of enacting LBWA. I see several important targets.
- Presence: First, it is a simple and very effective behavior to achieve presence. Specifically, it enables us to meet people in their space, which can make them more comfortable and show that you’re being intentional to meet with them.
- Get a Pulse: Relating back to COL (Ret.) Malone’s quote above, LBWA allows us to get first-hand exposure to the tones, concerns, and state of things across the organization at different levels.
- Solicit Feedback: People are often willing to be more honest in these one-on-one interactions, which creates rich opportunity to hear feedback about many things that impact them and the organization.
- Connect: This is a simple, low-threat way to connect with others on a personal and intimate level.
- Communicate & Inform: It provides us opportunities to communicate perspective. Based on the conversation, we can fill awareness gaps about our organizational core or priorities, updates, context, and share gratitude.
There is no right way to conduct LWBA. And there are myriad factors to address to maximize our presence’s impact. However, after personally practicing LBWA for about a decade, I want to share a few considerations I believe are essential. This is not everything, but several ideas to help make our LBWA intentional and effective.
- Be respectful and considerate of others’ time. Just because we make the time to walk around and talk with others does not necessarily mean they do have the time. Yes, we might be the boss, so they are inclined to pause to talk. But they may have critically urgent things going on. Be respectful and ask if they have a few minutes to talk, crafting your offer in a way that actually enables them to safely say no.
- Invest, care, and connect with them as people first. Remember the cliché of, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Let’s show we care. Use their name (consider first name for the military type), ask about their family, and discuss their interests outside of work. I don’t know anything about flyfishing, but I can listen to people talk about it if that is their passion!
- Ask, listen, and then communicate…maybe. Be slow to talk. Ask lots of questions first. Actually listen to their responses. Be genuinely curious. Remember their responses (write them down after the conversation if you need). If the conversation allows or you have built a solid connection over time, then you may consider using a LBWA opportunity to communicate. But always err on asking and listening first…and most.
- Covering your conversations with high levels empathy is important. I encourage you to read about leadership-based empathy more if you’re challenged by this idea. Remember, empathy is not coddling nor is it being overly emotional. It is our ability to meet others where they are at, recognize their situation, appreciate it, and adjust our behavior to those variables.
- Be positive, casual, and create a low-threat atmosphere for the conversation. This leads to others feeling safe to lower barriers and be more transparent. This leads to richer insight and deeper connections.
- Let others show off. Ask about their work, progress, or their space you are in. It provides an opportunity for people to feel pride in what they are responsible for. This increases senses of being seen and valued by others.
- Make LBWA a habit. Incorporate into our routine schedule, placing it on our calendar if needed. It will not be effective if us walking around organizational spaces is novel. People will be suspicious (“why is the boss walking around?”); this is counter to the entire purpose. If this is new, start small – consider stepping outside of the office to wander for 30 minutes once a week. As we get more comfortable and competent, we can increase frequency as appropriate. There is no right amount but find what works best and has a positive impact.
- Diversify places, times, people, and echelons. We can’t wander at the same time to the same general areas (which we may subconsciously do if we are uncomfortable). We need to vary the times we wander (get a feel for the differences work conditions at different times of day), where we visit, and who we talk to. We should talk to others across all levels of the organization from the most junior members up to our direct reports.
- If we are in a hybrid or not in-person work environment, we can achieve LBWA and leader presence in other ways. It may take some creative thinking, but think about how we can apply phone calls, video calls, and other technology-based options.
While I mentioned that there is no right way to conduct LBWA, there is a best way for each of us based on our unique preferences on how we lead. We must wander around in ways that are consistent with how we choose to lead in other areas. It must be done in natural ways that work for us. Forcing it can do more damage than good for our relationships and the organization’s climate.
For example, as a military member, using first names is not commons with enlisted Soldiers. However, I find it a simple way to show that I know the person beyond just their rank and last name, and that I care about them personally. So, I use first names during my LWBA times. I also try to communicate messages like “I love you and I’m proud of you” in various ways. And I intentionally aim to express gratitude for them and their work face-to-face.
What is not natural for me, on the other hand, is engaging in long conversations about sports. I enjoy a variety of sports, professional and otherwise, but I don’t follow any sport closely. So, I can’t really engage in extensive conversations about it. Nor would I choose to start a conversation using sports either. I can certainly listen to others talk about it and ask questions about it, but that is just not a topic I lean on much during LBWA. I recognize it may prevent particular connections, but it is just one area that is not natural for me.
Schedule a small LBWA window on your calendar this week. Try it out. Reflect on it if needed, to determine what worked or didn’t work. In the end, though, I believe this habit will quickly become your most favorite part of each day.
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