A Little Bit of MBWA
MBWA is not the latest teenage texting acronym; it is a much older and I dare say wiser phrase that leaders and managers should practice: Management By Walking Around. Especially for an expat manager, it’s a great way to ‘pull back the curtain’ on your organisation.
In the country-level organisations I’ve led in Asia, we’ve had both freestanding office-plus warehouse combinations and office plus-warehouse combinations located within a larger building. In all cases we had customer reception areas and repair service facilities in addition to the usual cubicles, meeting rooms, offices, and pantries. As a region head, I visited facilities all across Asia, allowing me to benchmark them, from those that were lacking to those that were leading the way. A practice that I frequently employed, sometimes scheduled and sometimes spontaneous, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by my assistant or one of my managers, was MBWA. Managing By Walking Around is one of the most useful expat management tools that I have found, with numerous benefits including:
Talking one-on-one and face-to face, at their workspace (wherever it may be), with employees at all levels of the organisation. This was truly invaluable. Not only was I able to see and learn first-hand, but I was able to ask questions and receive suggestions from employees on a variety of topics that directly impacted their roles. These were discussions that would have never taken place in larger employee meetings; they were only possible by creating the 1:1 atmosphere right where they worked. (I have learned that bringing lower level employees into my office was unfortunately intimidating and did not produce much useful feedback.)
Providing standards for orderliness and organisation. I recall once walking with my assistant through the reception area of the office, pointing out needs that ranged from tidying up to repainting to new signage. She very candidly responded by saying, “I don’t think I would have noticed most of that.” But I only had to do this once; after that, my standards became her standards, regularly met without my needing to be involved.
Seeing the normal state of offices, warehouses, employee activities, cleanliness, teamwork, etc. Not for show, but for real. The spontaneous visits could be eye-opening, but rather than scream and shout about what needed to be changed, we could dialogue and I could explain first-hand to those affected how I thought things could be improved.
It ‘rounds you out’ as a leader. I come from a sales background, so the time spent in the sales department was usually a quick dive into sales challenges and solutions with the sales team – familiar and straightforward. But when touring warehouses, repair facilities, riding with delivery drivers, etc., I not only learned more about those elements of the business, I was much better-equipped when those topics came up in management meetings.
You can put yourself in your customer’s shoes. In one of my (freestanding) PJ office-plus warehouse facilities, I recall driving up (this was pre-Waze and Google Maps – was our signage clear?) and parking my car (no small feat), walking into the customer service area (walkway protected from rain?), taking in the process to communicate needs, the waiting area, etc. As I walked through the facility, I quickly grasped the pros and cons of dealing with my company, completely from a customer’s perspective.
1. MBWA is one of the best two-way educational tools an expat manager can use. It allows you to learn a lot, teach a lot, convey personal standards, and hold conversations that you’d otherwise not be having.
2. It can be frustrating, discouraging, infuriating. In fairness, what may be obvious to you, regarding maintenance, orderliness, process, etc., may not be obvious to your Malaysian managers or staff. Give direction, and give them a chance or two before you raise the intensity level.
3. This will benefit you personally as well as your organisation and your team. You’ll learn faster about those less familiar functional areas when you go to them.
4. This is an excellent way to see your company from the perspective of your customers.
In conclusion, MBWA is an acronym that has stood the test of time. So many aspects of your role here – the breadth of departments that you manage, the full scope of work now under your control, even the type of building and surroundings where your company operates – may be very different from those back home. MIM (Managing in Malaysia) can definitely be enhanced with MBWA.