What Chris and Chris Know About Your Business

warehouse team The recent news in the UK feels like a sad cliché of modern times. The senior management of an organisation in crisis appears before an investigating committee and claims that they knew nothing about the crisis before it unfolded and that their staff did not inform them either. Reading about this, one asks how on earth could they not have known. Unfortunately, it is just the latest in a long series of similar stories to hit the news – from the financial crisis to the Enron scandal and more.

Thinking about it, however, I realised that “not knowing what is going on” is actually very common. Early in my career, I made a poor decision when hiring a new manager. Later, when I had made the required and painful decision to correct my mistake, people came to me and told me that, although they were pleased I had fixed the problem, they could not believe that it took me so long and that I had not known what was going on. I felt angry and betrayed that nobody told me. Of course, it was me that was at fault because I had not taken the time to figure things out.

This is a challenge for busy senior managers in any organisation. However, effective leadership depends on you knowing what is going on at all levels. This is especially acute as businesses grow. In a small start up, everybody knows everybody else and it is easy to track what is going on. As more formal structures are put in place, those informal networks can vanish and management becomes remote from the real action.

The good news is that there is at least one person who can help you. Lets call her (or him) Chris. They are connected to the pulse of the organisation and really know what is happening. You may be thinking that Chris is on your management team – perhaps your R&D director or a sales VP. If so, you are badly mistaken because they probably know less than you do.

In fact, Chris works in the least glamorous parts of your organisation. They might be working with some oily machine deep in manufacturing, packing goods in despatch or, perhaps, dealing with difficult tech support calls in customer services. Chris is connected with the detail of how the business works and, because of that, has priceless information about what is going on.

The question is, how do you get in touch with Chris?

Those of us that were lucky enough to work for Hewlett-Packard in its golden years (70s and 80s) should know what to do. Dave Packard invented a lexicon of good management practice , of which MBWA was at the core. MBWA stands for “Managing By Walking Around” – and it means just that. Getting out of the office and talking to your employees about their jobs, what motivates them and (more importantly) what they don’t like about the organisation. Of course, having listened it is important to take any actions that arise seriously.

One of the worst corporate failures in US history was the Challenger Disaster. A space shuttle exploded during take off due to faulty rubber gaskets (O-rings). In the ensuing investigation, all of the investigating committee members, except for one, talked exclusively to senior managers at NASA and their contractors. The exception was the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who talked to the engineers. As he later wrote “…while other members of the Commission met with NASA and supplier top management I sought out the engineers and technicians. That is how I became aware of the O-ring problem”

Hopefully few of us will have to face a congressional or government investigation but you can learn a lot just by talking to people at all levels in the organisation. Sometimes it can be fun and interesting; sometimes time consuming and frustrating. I have found myself arguing about business strategy with tech support late into the evening and packing customer orders at quarter end. However, what I have learned has always been invaluable.

For example:

  • “We have lots of parts in WIP that do not work and nobody seems to care.” (True)
  • “My manager asked me to falsify some documents.” (False – fortunately)
  • “I have witnessed bullying.” (True – sadly)
  • “I have got a great idea to increase sales.” (Fantastic)

Getting out and talking to your people is one of the things that they don’t teach you in business school but, in my experience, if you want to know what is really going on, it is the only way.

You may also avoid the embarrassment of having to tell your boss, your shareholders or even a congressional hearing that you “did not know what was happening”.

About Sam
Sam Luke is a director at Xyrho Ltd. He uses his 25 plus years sales, marketing and general management experience to help small and medium businesses improve their financial and customer performance.