Business Today

Walk your talk

Shamni Pande        Print Edition: Dec 11, 2011

Few business leaders will tell you this, but here it is: they continue to manage and influence people the good, old-fashioned way - by actually meeting them in person, and not the virtual way. This is not a secret really, but something that surfaces with unfailing regularity in conversation after conversation I have had with business heads over the years.

Shamni Pande
Shamni Pande
It is not as if they do not use e-mail, online chat, twitter and texting. They do. But never at the expense of 'facetime'. A big challenge for any business leader is to actually step away from the volley of e-mails involving administrative issues he or she gets. Many do not even regard regular personal interactions as a management or strategy tool. It is welded into their behaviour at work. Management thinkers such as Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., however, have not ignored this practice.

They gave currency to the term 'management-by-walking-around' as early as the 1980s in their book, In Search of Excellence. Actually, the expression was in use even earlier. Some trace its origin to Hewlett-Packard's management practices. It refers to an informal, unstructured management system, in which managers frequently stroll through their workplaces. Think this is obvious and everyone knows the practice should be followed? Then why is your mailbox clogged with lengthy e-mails from people who are often seated a few feet away from you? Why do your colleagues - including mine - often sport ugly grimaces while answering mails at work? It is because many of us are not talking to one another enough. Specialists believe such behaviour stunts emotional quotient of workers and often creates confrontations where none ought to exist.

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Personal interactions help in other ways too. Adam Bryant, Deputy National Editor, The New York Times, points these out in The Corner Office, a book that emerged from his numerous conversations with successful CEOs during reporting assignments.

Many CEOs warn that the corner office - a reward for years of hard work and stellar performance - could well turn into a trap, cutting them off from honest feedback. Often, colleagues give their bosses only good news. They do not bring up problems to show how they are in full control of situations. Thus CEOs have to find ingenious means of keeping in touch with reality. Bryant cites the instance of Cristóbal Conde, President and CEO of information technology giant SunGard, who sometimes accompanies his salesmen on visits to clients to get unfiltered feedback.

Some company heads have serendipitously stumbled upon major insights as a result of direct interactions. One such is Ravi Prasad, Executive Chairman, Himalaya Drug Company. Prasad once happened to be casually chatting with a young employee. A remark she made set alarm bells clanging in his head. "She said everyone was stressed as quality checks on product packaging were on and people were worried about the tough deadlines," he says.

The next day Prasad sought a detailed update on how the checks were going. Packaging mattered greatly because the company was about to export its first consignment of personal care. It was then that he discovered the product had not been packed well. It showed signs of damage due to repeated movement within its container. "We delayed our launch by two months," said Prasad. "We could afford to be late, but could not risk reports of spills and, worse, contamination." There are many such instances when management by actual interface has saved the day.

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