The Unavailable Boss Syndrome

Management by not walking around.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

Are you a boss who is unavailable to employees and likes a lot of personal space? Do you prefer to keep direct reports and colleagues at a distance? Or do you like working in collaborative, shared space?

Experts tell us that it is good business to bring bosses and workforces together into close physical proximity. Eyeball to eyeball, frequent conversations in the hallways and immediate access promotes workplace camaraderie and pays big dividends. I coach managers to be visible, available and not tucked away in an executive suite far from the action. Termed “managing by walking around (MBWA),” this exposure, vulnerability and presence is essential to observing and engaging employees as much as possible. Managing by walking around is what effective bosses do whether they are: the director of a cardiology practice; CEO of an airline; manager of a grocery chain, foreman of a construction crew or chairperson of an academic, university department.

MBWA is at the heart and soul of bosses collaborating with employees. Leaders create a culture of connectedness by their presence and caring demeanor. One of the most celebrated of bosses who managed by walking around was Southwest Airlines founder and former CEO, Herb Kelleher. Simply called “Herb” by employees this CEO was 24/7 involved with luggage handlers, cleaning crews, pilots, flight attendants, ticket agents and curbside assistants.

MBWA was put to the test at Southwest. Herb Kelleher benchmarked MBWA way back in the 1960s as his accessibility knew no boundaries. Herb being available and visible was his brand, his trademark. His collaborative style spread throughout SW. Employees gradually embodied some of Kelleher’s MBWA behaviors and attributes. Herb was the ultimate SW motivator, cheerleader, problem solver, team player, coach and mentor in times of family illness, births, achievements, awards and celebrations. Note that Herb’s MBWA was not heavy-handed. He never micro-managed-by-walking-around. Herb’s physical presence was an asset and he had zero control-freak tendencies. Herb was always welcome and welcoming. This non-judgmental, collaborative nature went viral. Following Herb’s lead employees connected and naturally and increasingly worked together.

Unfortunately, many current CEOs and managers do not agree. They insist upon distancing themselves from direct reports and subordinates. Despite the politically correct preference for hands-on leaders and collaborative culture, many managers only pay lip service to working together. While Fortune 500 leaders preach many flavors of faux team culture and collaboration the reality on the ground is more about personal space than physical camaraderie and more about deception than delivering. Too many managers are currently operating in stark contrast to Herb’s old MBWA. I’ve worked with supervisors, managers, executives and COOs who look down their noses at “plebian MBWA.” Why mingle with employees? Isn’t it an embarrassing waste of time to be wandering about and getting down on the shop floor with my underlings?

Leaders who formulate a separatist or elitist perspective are typically the same bosses who reveal that they would rather be back at their offices or on their lap tops down the street in an espresso café breaking down and interpreting performance data, statistics and feedback. They are devoutly data driven or as one COO called himself, “a data junkie.” They strive to keep close tabs on employees from afar. They view their management-from-a-distance as consistent with technology and information developments central to big business. In fact, according to some bosses the distance between employees is no longer relevant or measurable. E-communications has allegedly eliminated the issue of physical distance Data driven bosses (DDB’s) collect, chew up, ponder and analyze. But they have also substantially cut down on their face time and unstructured, wandering about time is increasingly rare and at a premium. They chew on the “hard data” of performance and relationship skills that is gathered from customers, surveys and metrics generated by company work teams. They have no time for MBWA or impromptu collaboration.

When I coach that there is no real substitute for MBWA, I frequently get knowing, elitist, impatient, holier-than-thou glances from corporate leaders with their reading glasses parched very low on the bridge of their noses. I even get blowback when I respectfully attempt to negotiate a blend of some small percentage of MBWA with data driven, distant assessment. One memorable CEO response to my management by walking around prescription was a simple and incredulous, “Oh how, 1955!”  Is it really that archaic and dated to say that in-house e-communication is not the substantive equivalent of face-to-face engagement possible via MBWA? Are advocates of MBWA really do-wop, Eisenhower and Reagan era relics who are selling outdated, humane versions of interpersonal communication and social intelligence? Does 2018 technology in the workplace accurately designate MBWA and unscheduled workplace collaboration to a post-World War II landfill?

What is at stake here? There is more than initially meets the eye. Enter the 2018-2020 unspoken protocol of management by not walking around (MBNWA)! Please zero in. Management by not walking around has unofficially replaced MBWA. MBWA in many corporate and organizational cultures has been increasingly viewed as no longer viable, legitimate or mainstream. In contrast, MBNWA is valued and the new name of the game is e-collaboration and distance leadership. MBNWA is part and parcel of a new e-world that has allegedly drawn everyone closer. Why spend shoe leather and precious e-time on serendipity shop floor, office and face encounters? Employees and bosses are only a text, a chat room, an email and a twitter message away from each closely communicating. But there are doubters and naysayers who do not buy into almost exclusive reliance on MBNWA.

Ironically, the widely practiced MBNWA does not readily view its absentee, MIA leaders as negligent or avoiding their direct oversight duties with subordinates. There are very few employees who dare proclaim that their e-bosses are perpetrators of the unavailable boss syndrome. Figure it out.

Unfortunately, too many Fortune 500 leaders and human resource departments do not readily identify MBNWA as a serious lapse, limitation or gap in leadership. MBNWA is rather worn proudly like a badge of honor. It is management’s conscious pledge and methodically reached decision to strategically limit face-to-face engagement and collaboration with employees in the workplace. Why resort to wasteful face-to-face as this is a relic of the progressive, liberal, humanistic past. It is old school and smacks of IBM Selectrics, Jimmy Carter and the pre-email and pre-Skype era of dictating memos to executive assistants. We now live 24/7 in technology, e-communications and social media and many DDB’s refuse to resort back to direct, physical, human-to-human contact during the 9 to 5. Certainly an e-Chat is the way to go. Why stoop to in person conversations and collaborations or 20, 40 and 60 minute impromptu riff-raff, coffee and serendipity with subordinates? Why should a boss, a coach, or a CEO of an airline waste precious time actually engaging in “face time” with recently hired heart surgeons or unproven professional athletes when you can just sit back in your suite or bubble and collect data and be a data driven boss?

But wait. Let’s get a bit harsh. Among some consultants and executive coaches this “unavailable boss syndrome” is totally consistent with leaders camping out behind their laptop screens. Such missing-in-action, unavailable bosses can be viewed as anti-collaborative as well as specializing in shuck ‘n jive refusal to perform their leadership duties. MBWA is not in their repertoire. Mingling and exposure in the workplace is the antithesis of management for some up and comers. Clearly, the new holy-grail becomes the metrics, the gathering of debatable data and the alleged use of same to evaluate performance. When faced with clear minded and focused professionals who request human contact and voice an overwhelming preference for something akin to MBWA, the DDBs can always humor the old timers and throw an occasional office appointment their way. This typically leads to 90 second cameos with seldom seen, absentee leadership. Suffice to say it is a struggle in 2018 to witness genuine, sincere MBWA being valued or practiced. I smile when I do see MBWA in action at a Trader Joe’s, COSTCOs, and Southwest. I cringe when I see the disconnectedness of leadership and subordinates in some highly regarded grocery chains, airlines, banks and health care centers for excellence. When bosses do not practice MBWA it inevitably leads to communication gaps, confusion, conflict, less collaboration between employees and a toxic fallout in customer service.

In our increasingly Herb-less, MBNWA culture, workplace motivation, productivity, profits and retention suffers. Companies repeatedly pay a steep price when they reap the consequences of negative social media postings. Inevitably, the gap grows between employees and between companies and customers. The underlying assumptions of indirect communication via technology, data driven leadership and the absence of MBWA is a recipe for disarray, discombobulation, dysfunction and toxic behavior. Collaboration grows increasingly far-fetched and service is uneven. Even as you read this article your business may be the target of a disgruntled employee or customer composing a social media rant. This is not reality or the sign of the times. It is indicative of poor management and a firm that is not functioning on all cylinders.

I strongly prescribe that companies reconsider their toxic tendencies of advocating and practicing management by not walking around. Moreover, I encourage business leaders to revisit management by walking around and consider making it part of their strategic repertoire.