Get Out of the Corner Office and Hit the Front Line

When Hubert Joly started as CEO of Best Buy earlier this month, he spent his first week on the job as many of the employees of the $48 billion company do, wearing a blue shirt and working the floor.

Joly, hired to turn around the beleaguered electronics retailer, worked at several store locations in Minnesota, being trained to serve customers, accept returns and stock items. “I want to not learn our businesses from the headquarters,” he said, “I want to learn from the front line.”

The most successful CEOs I know follow that philosophy. They walk down the halls of the office, around the manufacturing plant and through the aisles of the store. They stop and chat with people, asking Joe how his son is doing at college or Charlene about her husband’s knee surgery.

You can’t know everything about everybody in your company but the important thing is to engage with people, even if it’s just a friendly wave or by saying hi.

Not only do you show that you care about the people who work for your company, you will learn valuable information to help your business become more productive and profitable.

In addition, the employees get to know the CEO or owner as a real person, not just a face in a big fancy oil painting at the reception desk. Or a name on a memo announcing more lay-offs or plant closings.

Steve Jobs employed this simple strategy of what is known as MBWA, Management By Walking Around. He’d talk to his service reps, answer customer emails and would call customers who were experiencing problems. Can you imagine getting a phone call from Steve Jobs to answer your question about why the CD drive doesn’t work on your MacBook Pro?

When I’m running a business I’m usually given a nice desk, but you’d rarely find me there. When I’m trying to engage with people, that desk acts like a barrier. When I meet with someone, I come around the other side of the desk and sit in a chair beside them, or I suggest we go to a conference table, but I never sit at the head of the table, instead settling down next to the person with whom I’m engaging.

Of course, usually you won’t find me near that desk at all. I’m out walking around and talking with people because like Jobs and Joly I learn a lot that way.

It doesn’t matter what kind of business it is. Whether it’s a brokerage firm filled with cubicles or a manufacturing plant or retail stores, I still walk the floor.

When I took over as interim CEO of an automobile parts company in New Jersey, I told the owner I wanted to visit every one of our stores. “Give me a list of what you’d like to find out, but don’t tell them I’m coming,” I said.

I got quite familiar with the New Jersey toll booths that week as I drove 1,000 miles and walked into every store, operating as a “secret shopper.”

I learned how each store operated and got answers to what the owner wanted to know. I gathered a lot of information that was vital to turning that company around. Most of it was information that the owner didn’t previously have, because he hadn’t been visiting the stores.

It seems like such a simple and powerful concept to me, yet the most common response I get from CEOs or owners when I explain I’ll literally be doing “legwork” and chatting with the employees is, “They won’t talk to you.”

It’s actually quite the opposite. I can’t get them to stop talking to me.

Many owners also say things like, “I have an open door policy. If employees have something to say, they can just come to my office.”

But here’s the thing. Whether an open door policy is effective depends entirely on what employees will find on the other side. As author and motivational speaker Dr. Bob Nelson said, “An open door policy doesn’t do much for a closed mind.”

Your employees want to talk to you. Go take a walk.

(Photo courtesy Best Buy)

How a Little Toilet Paper Saved a Multi-Million Dollar Company

“My mother loved me to pieces,” wrote humorist Roy Blount Jr. “And I’m still trying to pick up the pieces.” Blount explores his relationship with his mother in his book <i>Be Sweet</i>, which anyone raised in the South will recognize as the advice we often received.

I often use that advice along with the other constant admonitions my mother gave me as a young boy to use the words “please” and “thank you” in my career in the turnaround industry. My own interpretation of being sweet is that I treat everyone with respect. That’s the way my momma raised me.

When I visit a failing company for an assessment or when I take over as Interim CEO, the situation can seem depressing. These companies are not on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, to say the least. Their employees work for the anti-Googles of the world: there is no free gourmet food, no celebrity visit, no bocce ball court or bowling lanes.

The employees know the company is in a bad situation. They’ve heard rumors about bankruptcy, layoffs, salary cuts. Most likely they have had very little communication from the higher ups to dispel what may or may not be only rumors.

Then I show up. A total unknown. About as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. I need to turn that negative emotional tide quickly so I can do the job I’ve been hired to do. I need these people on my team, and I want to give them hope about their futures. I can’t give them free gourmet meals – but I can buy them toilet paper.

I’ve mentioned this story before as a lesson for CEOs to watch their raging egos, but it applies for this situation as well. A very smart Ivy League Ph.D lost his $50 million company. He practically threw the keys at the bank considering all he kept from them, and I was called in to try to save his company.

Minutes after I arrived the executive assistant asked for $20 so she could buy coffee and toilet paper. Seems the CEO’s wife, the Dragon Lady of El Paso, as she was not so fondly referred to by the employees, had severely rationed coffee and toilet paper and they were out. Not a square to spare.

The company was losing millions, but saving a few dollars by limiting the staff to two rolls of toilet paper a day is kind of like unscrewing the light bulb in the fridge of your McMansion to save on electricity when you’re months behind on your mortgage payments. It won’t make a darn bit of difference except in the Demoralization Department.

I reached into my wallet and took out $100. “Go to that Sam’s Club I saw on the way in here, buy as much coffee and toilet paper as you can. Bring it back, put it in the break room, and tell everyone, ‘Compliments of Lee.’”

From then on, the staff loved me. Nobody lost his or her job, and we sold the company, in full, six months later.

Other times getting buy-in from employees is as easy as saying “please” or “thank-you.”

When I assume the role of Interim CEO, I need the assistance of the staff there. They may need to stay a little late to prepare a report for me, which they have to do in addition to their regular jobs. A simple, “Thanks, I really appreciate it,” to let them know that I know we’re all pulling a little more than our weight to keep the ship afloat, goes a long way. It’s always a shame that so many of them get this strange look in their eyes like I’ve said something odd. To them, I have. They aren’t used to hearing appreciation for doing their jobs.

Treating people with respect goes a long way towards helping build loyalty with a staff, especially when turning around companies. I spend a lot of time picking up the pieces, but not as a result of too much love.

Have you thanked someone lately? Who?