Nano Tools for Leaders IV

In Executive Education, Leadership, Nano Tools, Wharton on January 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

Being There

Nano Tools for Leaders® are fast, effective leadership tools that you can learn and start using in less than 15 minutes — with the potential to significantly impact your success as a leader and the engagement and productivity of the people you lead.

Contributor: Thomas Donaldson, PhD, The Mark O. Winkelman Professor, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

The Goal:

Improve communication with employees to ensure that you’re in the loop, hearing bad (and good) news before it’s too late.

Nano Tool:

Disastrous organizational public revelations make headlines, and often bring corporations to the brink of destruction. For those hit by a “corporate Watergate,” two things are true:

  1. Top level executives did not know about it in time;
  2. Scores of people inside the organization did know about it — and knew for a long time.

The key issue is why critical information fails to flow upward to executives. Research clearly shows that an employee’s feeling of pressure to commit unethical acts is strongly correlated with his or her conception of the ethics of top leadership. In turn, an employee’s conception of those ethics is often formed more by personal impressions than by ethical “pronouncements” from the top. It is those personal impressions that can and should be directed by top executives themselves.
The most effective way to create a positive impression — and to avoid critical communication lapses – is to make a habit of engaging in casual, unplanned moments with employees (known also as “being there”). How an executive treats employees in the elevator or the parking lot can make all the difference between hearing (and having the time to act), and not hearing. Leaders should seize opportunities to “be there.”

How It Works:

  • John Connelly, legendary CEO of Crown, Cork, and Seal, spent time every morning walking the shop floor. He intentionally positioned the company’s corporate headquarters above one of the working shops. 
  • KPMG’s Executive Vice Chairman, Sven Holmes travels regularly to KPMG offices, holding meetings with small groups of ordinary employees. 
  • Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart, can often be found casually chatting with security guards and other Walmart associates in the hallways or parking lot.
  • Some companies now hold at least one of their board of directors meetings away from corporate headquarters, at one of their divisional offices. Before and after the meeting, board members and executives are encouraged to walk around to chat with local employees. 
  • In the wake of the United Nations’ “oil-for-food” scandal (which was widely known to lower level employees and completely unknown to those at the top), the Secretary General and other Assistant Secretary Generals discovered that their communications with lower level employees were almost always formal. They resolved to change that. One resolution? When passing through the Vienna Café, the cafeteria in the middle of the UN building, they would shed their bodyguards and sit down to drink coffee with UN employees.
  • See the Additional Resources links below for more examples and research findings.

Action Steps:

  1. Practice the strategy of MBWA or “management by walking around.”
  2. Locate some of your important meetings in the field.
  3. Schedule “skip-level” meetings in which you talk informally with employees at two or more levels below your own.
  4. Take time to chat with employees in elevators, parking lots, and the cafeteria.

Share Your Best Practices:

Do you have a best practice for encouraging a culture of speaking up? If so, please share it here on our blog by commenting below.

Additional Resources:

About Nano Tools:

Nano Tools for Leaders® was conceived and developed by Deb Giffen, MCC, Director of Innovative Learning Solutions at Wharton Executive Education. It is jointly sponsored by Wharton Executive Education and Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, Wharton Professor of Management Michael Useem, Director. Nano Tools Academic Director, Professor Adam Grant.


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