Management By Sitting Around

This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information may no longer be current.

You’ve heard of the well-known management practice of “management by walking around”? A fascinating variant I discovered during a conversation with a local CEO is something I call “management by sitting around”.

This CEO, newly installed at the helm of a struggling 40-person company, instituted a “mini-ops” meeting to accelerate his understanding of the business and establish his relationship with employees. During these meetings, all working-level staff, from the receptionist to developers, deliver an update to the CEO with their colleagues as a silent audience.  The management team is also required to simply sit and listen.

Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame, presenting just 3 slides: a summary of the past period, plans for the current period, and challenges they face. In a company with 25-30 non-management presenters, the meeting takes a full day. The mini-ops reviews started out monthly but as the company stabilized moved to a quarterly pace.

At first, many employees were terrified and resistant.  It was the first time many of them had ever presented (let alone to the CEO!). But for the chief executive, it was a way to see potential leaders in action, have issues raised more directly, and keep a sugarcoating management team honest.

The CEO sets the tone for these meetings by remaining relentlessly positive and focusing on opportunities for improvement. He admitted that the first couple of sessions were a bit rocky but before long the bad news and big opportunities (the stuff he really wanted to hear) began to come out.

To sustain this openness concrete action must be taken on issues that are raised.  Just because you’re sitting around, doesn’t mean you can be lazy!

As an added benefit, open communication also breaks down organizational barriers. The CEO recounted that after the office manager presented a couple of times, the office gradually grew cleaner. Everyone began doing their part to keep things tidy.

All-staff presentations become unwieldy once the company reaches about 50 people. At this point, splitting the meeting between a couple of top executives and employee groups might be a good idea.  Also consider other informal variations on “management by sitting around”.  For example, this CEO described how he occasionally joins some of his staff in the lunchroom while they play cards.  There’s no business talk allowed but somehow if there’s an issue, it gets raised.

The principle of giving working-level employees a direct channel to the top is sound.  But it can’t be lip service or you’ll just keep hearing what everyone thinks you want to hear. It may be less exercise, but enlightened managers may discover that sitting around with their staff can be just as effective as the more active alternative!

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