MBWA has been around for a while, and is seen as a mantra by some management schools.
It’s a powerful tool to help you get a pulse for the organization and, as a leader, to be seen (leadership is, after all, an exercise best performed from the front).
It is NOT spying on your intermediate leaders by going to the “troops” and watching them directly (although you do gain some insights in that regard).
It is intended to let you see the world from the pointy end, and perhaps gain some insights that you might not otherwise get unless you stand in the trench with “the boys” (including a perspective of how well information on the organizations priorities and tasks have been relayed to them).
That said, such insights can come at a cost – the first being that your subordinate leaders may feel threatened or somehow tested by you spending time directly in their area of control. It’s essential to be aware of this – as you would no sooner want your boss to be managing your organization by going direct to your team members either.
The fact is – you are there to observe. Yes, you can canvas for opinions – but don’t issue directives or render judgments on what you see or are told without first speaking to the leader of that group. Invite that leader to join you (or at least be nearby) – but don’t let them take over the conversation or observations either.
Which brings us to that other insight; speaking truth to power. This is essential if you are to ever get a clear understanding of what is going on, what people see, or where and when problems exist.
Often when people hear the expression, they immediately think of some wisecracker who has a chip on his shoulder and doesn’t mind telling the boss when he’s wrong, or why the organization is messed up yet again.
While that does happen, it doesn’t mean that a culture of “truth” is a license to be an ass.
On a number of occasions, both within the military and in civilian industry, when time permitted (not during an emergency) and in private (or at least a forum where open dialogue was encouraged) – I would talk to the boss about a directive I’ve received that I didn’t agree with or understand.
Ultimately it was clear that I would do what I was told (assuming it was legal) – but getting the clarification as to what we were doing, how it fit with a larger plan, or why other avenues that I felt were better for the task at hand were discounted – helped MY understanding of the overall mission.
That insight could be essential when opportunity presents itself to use initiative outside of the original scope of the task – and selecting the right option that furthered the mission – based upon understanding the boss’ greater scheme.
As a leader, if the situation is right, you owe it to your leaders to explain your plan. Ideally it wasn’t developed in isolation in any case; you’ve consulted with them and utilized their knowledge to help build that plan in the first place.
Those leaders need to know they can speak openly; truth to power. Coupled with that however is the expectation that there is a cutoff point where discussion ceases; in the end, the decision to proceed rests with you – and they need to execute your plan to the best of their ability.
It all comes down to one of the key principles of leadership – TRUST. Trust that you will incorporate the knowledge, specialization and insight of your leaders into your plans (even if you need to go contrary to that advice on occasion). You need to be able to trust in them to execute that plan regardless of the course selected, and where appropriate – trust their ability to use initiative when opportunities present themselves.
Similarly the troops need to trust they can speak to you candidly when invited to; give you the man-on-the-ground’s insight.
Your leaders need to trust that you aren’t going to undermine them; you are trying to get a 360-degree view from your commander to the troops in the field and from that total picture – have a complete awareness of what is going on through the legendary “fog of war” (or “smog-of-war” as described by some of my more industrial-driven clients).
People don’t like to be told that their ideas are “unwise”, but while it can sting (and delivery is everything) – it’s far better to be told things are probably going to go bad, and avoid that hazard, than to jump to crisis management when the “excrement hits the fan”.
Promote the two-way dialogue; encourage candor.
Set the example yourself when raising objections or questions to your managers or even your team leaders.
True leaders don’t (and can’t) know “everything”.
They surround themselves with people who compliment their own skills, knowledge and experience – and draw upon that collective knowledge and skill base to seize opportunities and execute their mission with success (whether that is an attack, a project, or a sales target).
Knowing how to draw the best from your team, based upon trust and open communications is the essential difference between being the leader of a group of individuals versus leadership of an actual team.
Gain insight (get the whole picture).