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Walking the Walk

To many employees, the CEO is a remote figure. They see him at big meetings on the stage; they hear …

To many employees, the CEO is a remote figure. They see him at big meetings on the stage; they hear him in his quarterly taped message; and they read about him as he makes statements to the press, sends out the annual report, and appears in news releases and company articles.

Even to his own middle- and upper-level managers, the CEO is someone to be approached with care. He is usually in his office, and when you go see him, you put your coat on and a worried look on your face. Or he is always at the head of the meeting table or the head table at a luncheon, and you are never seated near him. When out and about, he often has a small claque with him-his COO and CFO, a couple of directors, or some visiting dignitaries.

Although he doesn’t mean to be, he really is so hard to reach out and touch that some of his old friends begin to think of him as a “cold-ass boss.” What makes matters worse is that he misses out on a lot of relationships, straight information, and fun.

Not all CEOs drift into this isolated, antiseptic mode. Some do exactly the opposite. They are always on the move, dropping into offices, ambling down the halls, going through plants, calling on customers and suppliers, visiting with analysts and shareholders.

Tom Peters got credit for naming it “management by walking around,” but he certainly didn’t invent the technique. The careful captain walks the ship every day, seeing everything and being seen. The finicky retailer walks the store constantly and is seen by customers and clerks alike. The involved school principal walks the school and drops into classrooms and activities. There is no substitute for seeing it up close and in person.

In a course on executive leadership that I teach at Columbia Business School, our CEO guest lecturers strike a common chord. “I don’t like to stay in my corner office; I like to wander through the building and see for myself what’s going on,” says John Chalsty, CEO of Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette. “I get my information firsthand whenever and wherever I can, and I learn more in other people’s offices than I do in my own,” contends Robert Lipp, CEO of Travelers’ Insurance. “One-on-one communication with our people and our customers is of absolute importance to me,” says Daniel Jones, CEO of Newsbank, “that’s why I travel so much.”

An office-bound CEO might growl back and contend that “those guys don’t have the number of problems I have.” Perhaps not, but it just might be that CEO remoteness is the reason for some of the problems. Another CEO might say, “It’s just not my nature to go popping in on people or chitchat around the water cooler.”

Okay, devise your own system. Travel with a salesman one day a month. Schedule a few meetings at a plant or district office instead of in your boardroom. From time to time, eat in the company cafeteria and go through the line like everybody else. Attend a sales training session or meet the new college recruits. You might be surprised at the reaction you get.

Remind yourself occasionally that you did not get to be CEO for being aloof and unapproachable. You got the job because you worked well with people, because your opinions were respected, and because you fit nicely into the corporate culture. The new title, the big office, the ceremonial trappings of the CEO-the plane, the limo, the administrative staff-need not change your management style or cause a personality switch on your part. Rather they should be looked upon as resources that enable you to see more people, range further, and communicate faster.

Walking around is especially appropriate when things are changing. Or when you are a newly anointed CEO from the outside. Or when a downsizing or disappointing earnings have been reported. Or when rumors are flying around. These are not the times to retreat into your office and close the door.

Walking around is not leadership in itself. You still have to select the right team, provide them with the right programs, and then make the right decisions.

Does walking around help you do the right things? Try it and see.

Formerly the CEO of F.&M. Schaefer (19721977), Robert W Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is an executive-in-residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds directorships with Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stowe Venture Capital Co.; and is a partner of Lear, Yavitz & Associates.

About robert w. lear