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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 February 2019

The virtues of management by walking around

Dean Hoke considers the best management styles
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid discovered very few, if any, supervisors or employees at their desks when he paid a surprise visit to their offices last week. Photo courtesy Dubai Media Office
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid discovered very few, if any, supervisors or employees at their desks when he paid a surprise visit to their offices last week. Photo courtesy Dubai Media Office

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, appears to be a person who practises “management by walking around”, a style of management described in the 1982 best-selling book called In Search of Excellence, written by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman.

Sheikh Mohammed went on an unannounced early morning walk last week and visited a number of locations in Dubai. He stopped by a few Dubai government offices.

He discovered very few, if any, supervisors or employees at their desks.

He had his aide video record him walking around in the supervisor’s office. The video was posted on Twitter by Dubai’s media office, which has 1.55 million followers, and reported on media outlets worldwide.

“He certainly wanted to send a message,” said Mona Al Marri, director-general of the government of Dubai’s media office. “Timeliness starts at the top and we won’t go after employees when their bosses aren’t there.’’ This is not the first time he has done this, and I suspect it will not be the last.

I first learnt about “management by walking around” when I worked in television in the US in the early 1980s.

Our station broadcast a programme hosted by Tom Peters. He discussed this particular management style on air, which was developed by the leadership of Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s. 

It involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace to check in with employees or equipment about the status of continuing work.

The Economist writes there are three key elements to this management practice: listening to what people are saying, using the opportunity to transmit the company's values face-to-face and being prepared and able to give people on-the-spot help.

Peters saw this form of management as the basis of leadership and excellence. He called it the “technology of the obvious”.

I purchased the book more than 30 years ago and to this day practise this particular management style, though many modern executives now consider it unfashionable and have moved on to other management styles.

So what can be learnt from it and applied to employers and employees?

First, it’s important to be at your job on time. You never know who may walk in to get service or say hello.

Second, employees watch managers. If senior people are on time and engaged with the clients in a friendly and professional way, lower-ranking employees will follow their lead.

Third, in order to gain the respect of your employees you must earn it. To be a manager does not mean you give orders and then do nothing. This can be achieved by walking around, asking questions, listening, providing encouragement and guidance.

Sheikh Mohammed does all of this extremely well and we can all learn from the style he employs. He is actively engaged. He is in constant motion and is an advocate for a positive customer experience.

I do not know if Sheikh Mohammed has ever met Peters or read his books, which I would recommend, but if not I would say to Peters that he practises “management by walking around” every day.

I can show you hundreds if not thousands of images of him walking around the city, attending exhibitions, and even in the desert where a group of Chinese tourists ran into him and he posed for a picture.

Tom, if you happen to be reading this and would like to meet him he is not hard to find. Just remember to have your walking shoes on. I think you two would find you have similar views on management and innovation.

Dean Hoke is principal and co-founder of Edu Alliance, an education consulting firm in Abu Dhabi

Updated: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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