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Revisiting Management by Walking About (MBWA)

Some twenty years ago, just after I was hired by General Electric Capital and tasked to implement something as strange to a bank as continuous improvement in their newly acquired, yet dusty German banking environment, life was not walk in the park anymore. Gaining the skills for the new job with the help of the outstanding GE Capital people development engine was challenging but rewarding. But I never learned about Management by Walking About (MBWA).

MBWA - Management by walking about
Management by walking about

Putting these skills to work was the real test. Even the nice title as director and AVP did not help much, when I needed to “sell” the idea of improving and innovating the business to fellow directors who were already doing great. More often than not, I found myself having nice frameworks on great PowerPoint pitches but no clue how to approach them. A real hard nut to crack seemed to be our Sales Director, Gerald.

Immediately after I joined, Esther, our HR Director appeared at my office. I thought, something bad must have happened. Why else does the HR Director pop up in my office. No, there was nothing. And, some minutes after she left I had already forgotten what the chat was about. I thought, she was checking on the rookie. And, I disliked this encounter since I did not like people checking on me and I certainly did not enjoy small talk. To my surprise, Esther came back again and again. Nearly every week she sat in my office to have a chat. This was her way of management by walking about (MBWA). How annoying.

voc - MBWA

One day, I thought I put her to a test and explained my problem with approaching Gerald to her. This was my try to turn small talk into something useful for me. And, I wanted to find out whether there was more than just hot air. To my surprise she immediately knew what I was talking about and she seemed prepared for this conversation.

She started with a series of questions that appeared to be back to small talk again. Questions to find out what I knew about Gerald. There was not much. She offered some information about Gerald to me. I learned about his favourite football club FC Cologne, his kids, their age, their hobbies etc. Everything was new to me. She nailed the conversation with a hint: “Wait until FC Cologne wins and then approach Gerald. But make sure you talk football before you get to your points.”

I did. It worked. The project Gerald and I started in Sales together was so successful, that our project leaders had to present it to the GE Capital HQ in Stamford, Connecticut.

During one of the following “small talks” with Esther, she coached me on how to build relationship with people of different personalities. I easily understood why, on the outset, it was hard for me to talk with Gerald.

And, I learned that Esther did not have any agenda when she did her tours through the office. She listened to employees and watched processes in order to find development needs. Usually, she did not offer solutions. But she offered a questioning technique that brought us to discover solutions on our own. She was providing coaching to us as a true Employee Champion.

Esther took proactive effort to listen, empathise and understand the employees’ and management’s needs, indirectly she increased our commitment and capabilities. For me, the rather useless small talk had turned into a quality conversation – after I was able to open up, after developing some trust. I learned to value our partnership. In retrospective, I have to admit that a good portion of my success at GE was due to Esther’s intervention, the informal chat and especially her listening ear. I was lucky enough to meet a few more Esthers in my professional life whom I owe a lot. These mentors are not necessarily our bosses. They are just people who care about us.

Coaching is the process of letting people know, what they do matters to you.

Practical Coach, MPC

key-learnings MBWA

Over the years, I tried to adopt some of their coaching techniques like Management by Walking About (MBWA) and I certainly got some small success stories. And, I recognised that it is usually much easier to be excellent in my subject matters than in people management. However, the only mistake is to stop trying.

And, what about you? Are you doing your MBWA? Why not?

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Amy BC Tan

Amy is the Executive Director at the Centre of Organisational Effectiveness (COE Pte Ltd). She has more than 20 years of experience in human resource management and organisational development in various industries.

She has held senior leadership positions with Nokia, Aon, Ministry of Manpower and Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee. She has led the transformation of the HR functions and several organisational development initiatives for multiple organisations.

Amy is also trained in Creative Problem Solving and certified as Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, an accredited practitioner in executive coaching and psychological instruments such as MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator®), DiSC, Harrison Assessment and Belbin Team Roles.

Amy can be reached via

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