“So, if you’re sitting up in your office somewhere, how did people think you or others would know? When we didn’t know.”
That’s former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaking at a conference on the state of professional sports hosted by the Wall Street Journal explaining why he and major league baseball owners were ignorant about steroids that altered the competitive balance of the game for more than a decade. While Mr. Selig and others may have been wrong about performance enhancement drugs, he is dead right about one thing: if you stay in your office, you won’t know anything!
Leaders owe it to their organizations to be on top of issues. They do this by being present and available to their people wherever and whenever they are needed. That begins by leaders mastering the issues not just through briefing books but by getting out into the field and talking to people. Here are four ways to do it.
Study up. Know the issues facing your company. In most instances this is pretty easy for most senior leaders because they are huddled in meetings or drowned in briefing books. Their challenge then becomes one of sifting through the tsunami of information and putting it into an intelligible construct that will enable them to frame issues, ask questions, and make decisions.
Listen up. Once you know the background, clarity will come from visiting with key stakeholders, including customers and employees. Customers will tell you in an instant how well, even better how poorly, your product or service is performing for them. Employees, too, when granted permission will talk about what they see and hear. And if they feel safe they may even venture a few suggestions.
Inspect up. Here’s a technique that Franklin Roosevelt used. As an assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, he personally inspected ships and ship building facilities. He loved it. After he was crippled by polio, he was not physically able to make the inspections. So, as governor of New York and later president, he asked wife Eleanor to do so. FDR pushed her, as he had himself, to go past the pro forma handshaking to look behind the façade. For Eleanor, it meant visiting factories, inspecting kitchens, and checking living quarters of workers. For managers, it may mean visiting factory floors, talking to customers, and personally using products.
Follow up. There is no use doing your homework if you will not hold people accountable. Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, was a master at following up on details, getting answers from aides, civil servants and generals to questions he had asked them previously. It is important to act on that information to make certain people follow through on initiatives to which they have committed. Hold yourself and the team accountable for results.
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world,” wrote novelist John Le Carre. Le Carre (pen name of David Cornwell) was referring to international espionage, but his comment is equally valid for any senior leader. It is important to make the effort to know your people and their issues so that you are aware of what is going on. You cannot know everything, but a leader must know much about important things all of the time.