Sanjeev Kotnala: The forgotten art of ‘Managing By Walking Around’

09 Nov,2016

By Sanjeev Kotnala


In my career, I worked with a lot many professionals managers, who were also great human beings. They helped shape my approach in life. Under their expert tutelage, I was introduced to the hugely potent management tool; the art of ‘Managing By Walking Around’ (MWA). I am a great fan of it. Most of the places I have had the opportunity to work for, MWA was a necessary part of organisational culture.


The new breed of managers, over-dependent on whatsapp, mails, SMS, chats, Skype is missing a trick or two. Let me share a small story here.


During the period, the incident happened, I was directly reporting to one of the directors (D) in one of my corporate avatars. Every morning, ‘D’ while walking to his cabin would interact with as many employees as he could possibly do. My cabin was right in his path. Invariably ‘D’ stopped by and would toss a harmless innocent question ‘What’s happening’. The question would result in triggering a nervous reaction in me. The result, I would start ticking off the list of problematic items with him.


It took me time to realise: it was D’s way of remaining in touch with the team. This MWA allowed him to conduct a cool no-negative check in the fastest possible time.


One of my juniors, who was long in the organisation came to my rescue. He shared a secret with me. He saw the problem in my listing of points in reply to D’s otherwise harmless question. He recommended that instead of listing problem areas, I should start sharing jobs that were on track, Jobs, where the team was really doing well. Events that were under control. He with his experience came to a valid conclusion; ‘D’ did not remember the jobs with his direct managers, and MWA was his tool of keeping his finger on the pulse of the departments. The junior whispered, do not lie even if you do not share the complete truth. Share more only when probed.


Once I adapted the practice, my life became simplified. Moreover, ‘D’ was happy hearing everything was good. In effect, his perception of me as an effective team leader reached newer heights.


Stopping at the canteen, eating together, the morning review over a coffee, finding time for informal get-together, meeting after office hours, celebrating successes, wiping away failures over a beer and peeping into team’s work area for a quick conversation is some of the tools used by MWA practitioners. I should know. I was one of them.


MWA makes you to be perceived as more approachable, trusting, connected, part of the team and less intimidating. Tags, we all want to carry. The positive result of MWA is quick reaction, proactive behaviour, openness, knowledge transfer and trust that naturally emerge with such interactions. You get to know of the problems, much before they turn serious. You are better placed to guide and coach the team through a relevant solution. You are able to tap on the organizational grapevine. Tactical information is easy to get and people are surprisingly more willing to help you out, because they want to and not because they should.


A win-win solution!


MWA can be of great help in creating your ‘BRAND-I’. When you want to take those deliberate planned steps to help create your personal brand. MWA practitioners are seen as more knowledgeable, culturally right and organizationally active leaders. Well handled, it can become one of the pillars of your success.


If you are one of the seniors in an organisation, you may vaguely remember your frontline days and agree that the landscape of business is literally morphing at a fast pace. Trust me, you can leverage MWA to tweak and update your knowledge sphere. You become more alert, alive to the business requirement and develop an in-depth understanding of front-line issues.


MWA is a deliberate strategy of frequent informal wandering through the office area. Creating a participating environment of spontaneity of discussing work, asking questions and helping wherever required.

It sounds simple, but it is a twin-edged sword. If not practiced rightly, it can be an efficiency killer.

MWA is all about your approach to interaction and engagement. It is not about a mere physical presence. If the teams see you actively listening and contributing, they surely will appreciate and become co-drivers of your agenda. You are in the crosswire. People are watching you. They will detect biases, even when none exist. So, if they get the sense of excessive supervision, or it being faked, they will be smart enough to find their own way out.

MWA cannot be forced. It is something that you should want. You are into MWA it or you are out of it. There is no part-MWA. MWA demands an inclusive way of working. It is for you to define what you want from MWA and take proactive actions in attaining the results.


When you are out in your MWA rounds, you must listen, suggest and guide. You must only make promises that you have intentions to keep. Just like alumni makes an institution, your action and implicit behaviour define the success of MWA and your ‘Brand-I’. You need to earn trust, otherwise you can end up being seen as a spy to senior management. You need to understand individuals and teams, and their need for intangible support. You cannot paint everyone with the same brush.

If you are new to MWA, your inability to start the practice is understandable. You need to nudge yourself and stop using your busy schedule as an excuse. Many of you will be tense just visualising the ritual. It helps being a natural extrovert. However, you do not always have choices.

Remember, the teams can easily sense your nervousness. To be successful MWA manager, you need to be relaxed and inviting for people to respond positively. For this, you need to adapt to the norms of the arena you walk in. Being one of the teams is an easy statement and a tough practice.

If you are now ready to take your baby steps in the glorious world of MWA. You should be on guard to self-evaluate and fine-tune your actions. Differentiate between being assertive versus aggressive, listening versus hearing and inquisitive versus intrusive. You should be willing to observe and listen more. Get the team to contribute to success and changes that makes their lives simpler and pleasant.

MWA needs your complete attention and dedication. The aim is to build quick rapport. Watch out and keep your side of the deal.  There is more harm in sharing half-truths or being the source of rumours than being transparent and honest in your dealings. .

If you make a promise, keep it. If there are issues or obstacles that prevent you from delivering, please come back and share with the team.

As a practitioner MWA, your approach is under scrutiny. Keep your interactions straight, seek result areas and look for success. Compliment people doing great work. Create warm personal positive environment around you. Use MWA interactions to drive home company’s culture, vision, mission and values. Create that alignment of individual, team and organizational goals.

The other challenge in MWA is to achieve a balance between personal and professional life. Chat with team members about their non-professional life. Gauge their comfort level and try knowing their families. In advertising, I was taught to know the client’s family, his dog and spouse. It really did wonders, but you may not need go that far.

There is a thin line between MWA and irritating-MWA. Too much and you get branded with over supervision and an insecure senior. Something that will work against you and the process of empowering teams. Do not overdo MWA to an extent that it starts becoming a distraction and a legitimate excuse within the team.

The worst you can do is to be predictable in your MWA timing. Everyone will be extra-aware and alert for that walk. You will lose the element of spontaneity and randomness. Let me rephrase, you lose.

So, be spontaneous. Be regular, frequent but random in your timing of MWA. And remember, It helps to be warm, fresh and a good listener at all your MWA stops in the organisation.


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