6/30/2015 | Brandt Handley

Being a Middle Market CEO is in many ways comparable to raising teenagers: You’re no longer providing the day-to-day life-sustaining interactions that an infant needs, but you’re not off the hook like you are with adult children. In fact, that’s one of the challenges of parenting teens and growing a Middle Market team: your charges still need your guidance, but your increased distance from their daily activities makes it difficult to do so!

If that sounds strikingly similar to your role as a CEO, you’re not alone. Middle Market CEOs are further away from the front line than when the company was smaller, yet many Middle Market companies don’t have the necessary systems and processes in place to fill that gap. This is why Middle Market CEOs must make an intentional effort to stay connected with the business’s frontlines. And the best way to make that happen is surprisingly old school ... it’s the iconic management style of the 1980s: “Management by Walking About”.

 This approach is once again gaining popularity, driven by a digital revolution and a growing remote workforce that is making face-to-face interactions more rare. Random, unscheduled visits to the frontlines of your business can be enormously valuable. While these visits should never have the air of a surprise inspection, seeing what’s going on when employees haven’t had a chance to prepare for your visit can provide insight in a way that scheduled tours cannot.

Follow these tips to make the most of your visits:

  • Go Solo. If you walk around in an entourage with all of your direct reports and an assistant to take notes, you’re not going to learn anything worth knowing. Keep it casual and act like you have nothing you’d rather be doing than hanging out, having a chat and understanding their challenges.
  • Ask “What gets in your way?” Asking that question is a great way to learn about obstacles, logjams, and wasted activities. Also ask, “What could we stop doing without anyone noticing that would improve your productivity?”
  • Follow up with “Why do we do it this way?” Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for procedures that employees view as obstacles. Asking this question will help you separate necessary inconveniences from ineffective or unnecessary processes – and also help them understand why certain SOPs are needed.
  • Finally, “How can I help you?” You won’t, of course, be able to solve every problem you hear. But you may be surprised at how easy it is to solve some of the things that your employees find to be extremely frustrating. You also get the chance to explain the reasons for the things you can’t change by adding executive perspective they may have never heard before.

 Staying personally connected to your rank and file is the only true way to really know what’s going on and is more important now than ever before.  If you rely only on your official chain of command, you risk missing important information. If you want the truth, you need to go get the unfiltered and unfettered version yourself. How are you keeping in touch?