Joseph Solymossy is a hard-minded and soft-hearted man. That doesn’t mean it’s corny. Joe, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a retired Navy captain, has spent several decades in the nuclear power business. Today he is an executive of a large corporation that manages nuclear power plants. It’s about getting results.
Joe is a smart guy. You know that everyone in your industry has the same good technology. So the performance differentiator is people – the men and women the public trusts to operate nuclear plants in ways that are safe and reliable.
Joe knows that getting “people’s stuff” right is always critical, especially in an environment where the margin for error is south of zero. So you work hard to stay close to your people and make sure that they, in turn, stay close to them.
In a recent meeting with his senior staff, Joe taught a principle that is relevant to any leader anywhere. He used a parable, a kind of modern version of one of Aesop’s fables. Here’s the story Joe told his people:
A farmer who had been losing money year after year went to a banker. He asked for a loan to keep the farm open for another year. The banker reluctantly agreed, saying, “I can no longer afford to lose money to you. Either show a profit this year or we’ll get the property back.”
Leaving the bank with a new loan, the farmer was confronted by a beggar who asked the farmer if he needed help. The farmer said he needed a lot of luck to get through the next year. The beggar offered the farmer a lucky stone for a small price, payable at the end of the year. The beggar said that payment was required only if the farm actually made a profit. The farmer, seeing that he could not lose, asked for the conditions of the agreement. The beggar said that the stone is effective only if the farmer walks through his property every day with the stone in his pocket. The farmer, ready to try anything, took the stone and went home.
The next morning, the farmer walked along his fence line and noticed that ten of his head of cattle had come through a broken fence. He rounded up the cattle, led them back to the field, and repaired the fence.
The next morning he found a burrow and set it up. The fox was caught. That night, the farmer and his wife enjoyed a fine meal of fox stew.
On the third day he found a hole in the chicken coop and repaired it to keep his chickens inside.
The next day, he saw some soil erosion and placed rocks near the area to prevent the soil from being consumed.
Day after day, he went around his property with the stone in his pocket and, day after day, he corrected what needed to be corrected.
At the end of the year, the farmer went to the banker and informed him that it had been the most profitable year in history. The banker, pleased by the farmer’s newfound prosperity, asked him how he did it. “I did nothing,” said the farmer. “He had a magic stone.”
Leaving the bank, the beggar asked the farmer how the year had gone. The farmer told him that it had been the best year he had ever had. The farmer paid the beggar for the lucky stone and said that he would carry the stone with him every day until he died. The beggar confessed that the stone was out of luck, it was simply that the farmer was finally doing the things that he should have been doing all along: inspecting his workspaces.
What is the moral of the story? To be profitable, you must inspect your spaces. This means prioritizing inspections over some of the other fun things you love to do (like meetings and paperwork). It means being where the workers are and watching not just what they do but how they do it. It also means that you must correct and train people on the spot and help them develop ways to better perform their stewardships. If you don’t, your staff will keep making the same costly mistakes over and over again.
Once people understand that they will be inspected frequently, they will perform better and your organization will prosper. While some organizations have developed formal inspection programs, these programs often resort to an administrative requirement to conduct the assessment. Inspection becomes ineffective when the priority of conducting the assessment (marking items on a checklist) seems more important than the quality of the inspection. Only when managers and supervisors really have the practice of regularly checking the quality of work will quality be maintained.
Genuine quality cannot be forced or managed. It must come from an internal desire to improve the performance of your workers.
First, can you see the wisdom in using that parable? You can teach practices throughout the day, but they are rarely sustained until people understand the underlying principles. A parable or story is a great way to teach principles in a humane and memorable way.
And what about this particular story? It underscores the critical importance of what some may call leadership wandering around. Of course, this is not mindless wandering. You are wandering with a purpose.
Years ago I worked closely with Gordon McGovern. Gordon was the new president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company. In those days, as now, Campbell was much more than a soup maker. Their hundreds of brands ranged from Prego spaghetti sauce and Pepperidge Farm baked goods to Vlasic pickles and Godiva chocolates. The competition was fierce and Campbell needed strong leadership. Gordon provided it.
Unlike his predecessor, whose style was formal to the point of being imperial, Gordon was determined to remain close to his people. This was definitely not the superficial “Hi, how are you?” kind of lighthearted treatment we see in political campaign commercials. Gordon was real, and when he talked to people, the accounts receivable clerk, the foreman on duty at the food plant, the assistant brand manager fresh from college, the “food stylist” in the kitchen of proof, his approach was genuine. People were comfortable with Gordon because he asked good questions and listened carefully (what a concept!) To what they had to say.
The intention of the wandering leadership is not to usurp the authority or position of middle managers or supervisors. The point, in fact, is that middle managers and supervisors should do it themselves. Cascading sponsorship and cascading leadership are necessary for organizational effectiveness. The idea is simply to “walk the fences” so you can get a first-hand idea of what people are thinking, which processes are helping and which are getting in the way, and how the key leadership messages of the company are manifested. organization after being filtered by several layers of bureaucracy.
These are just four of the many advantages of walking leadership:
It keeps you in tune. There is a lot going on in your organization, and you certainly won’t learn it all from routine staff meetings and email exchanges. A great way to keep an eye on the “frequency” of your people is to go where they are. If you want to know what is really going on in the customer service department, don’t just invite the department head to your office for an explanation. Walk up to the customer service department and request a guided tour and a chance to see for yourself.
Increase communication. When your motive is pure, people will quickly discover that your purpose is to learn and train rather than catch and criticize. Then they will view your “walk” as a safe opportunity to discuss things that are genuinely relevant to their performance. It will not seem like a threat. You will be considered a useful resource. Remember: open communication is the lubricant that keeps your organization running smoothly.
It gives serendipity a chance to function. Have you ever read a book or walked through a store or struck up a casual conversation and discovered something useful that you weren’t even looking for? That is coincidence. Serendipity cannot work if you are not there. Also, people seem to feel more comfortable on their own turf. And when they feel comfortable, they are more likely to share information and knowledge that will contribute to their own big picture.
Provide teaching and learning moments. There are few things more powerful than surprising your people by doing good. When you see someone doing a job well, praise them immediately. Be specific. Don’t just tell them they are doing a good job. Point out specifically what they are doing well and remind them of important links to other people’s work. And when you notice an error of omission or commission, correct it on the spot, too. (If you are the “big boss,” it is generally best to bring the matter up privately to the employee’s immediate manager to avoid undermining the manager’s own authority.)
Working with management teams in a wide range of organizations, I am often struck by the way that otherwise capable people often neglect the smart and easy practice of leading by walking. Somehow, they think they can keep an accurate pulse on their organizations by limiting their intelligence gathering to spreadsheets, staff meetings, and PowerPoint presentations. Those sources can help track trends, but they lack the living and respiratory data that only comes from talking to people in the trenches.
My friend Tim Bays, a singer-songwriter from Nashville, has a little song that goes like this:
The important part of fishing is not fish, it is fishing
The important part of loving is love.
The important part of doing almost everything you are doing
He is doing it with all his heart.
You’ve heard it before: you can rip a person’s back and hands, but you have to win their head and heart.
Joe Solymossy, Gordon McGovern, and other good leaders understand what that means. It means supplementing the hard data of numbers and graphs with the soft data of people’s feelings and opinions. It means leaving the comfort of your swivel chair and being among the people who know things about your organization that you might never have dreamed of. It means creating an atmosphere in which people feel safe asking questions that even you might not think to ask.
Leadership is not about the title on your business card. True leadership is about how you connect with real people doing real work. It’s about how you provide the resources needed to get the job done. It’s about removing roadblocks and speed bumps so your people can use the ingenuity and skill they were hired for.
Walking leadership is a great way to add value to your people’s worth.