“The queen thinks the world smells of paint.” – Billy Connolly
A humorous but insightful observation from one of my favorite Scottish comedians. It’s also a dangerous reality for many leaders today.
In the retail business, for example, the unannounced store visit is the stuff of store manager nightmares. Texts and calls come in waves from employees who have spotted the CEO strolling through the mall with her venti soy latte in hand. Panic ensues in an all-hands-on-deck attempt to make the store look as good as possible before inspection. While planned store visits decrease anxiety for employees, they often mask important issues that should be addressed.
In one store chain many years ago, store designers heard frequent requests from a district manager to increase the number of dressing rooms in the next store. There simply were not enough. Curious, they took an unannounced visit to the store, finding most dressing rooms closed to customers. Store employees had been forced to use them as storage rooms given the rate and volume of goods received every week, highlighting a breakdown in their supply chain management. In another business, dingy hallways were cleaned, new artwork hung and old carpets replaced before a board meeting where employee opinion surveys were shared and workplace morale discussed. But what of the conditions of the employee workplace before their visit? What could board members have learned from experiencing it as it was before its hasty transformation?
How do we prevent even well-intentioned cover ups from happening? Two simple steps as a start:
Create a culture of trust. If employees fear in-person visits from their leaders and the consequences of attention, then an honest dialog will not occur before, during or after leaders visit. Make sure managers and employees know that you are visiting to determine how you as a leader can better support them, not the other way around. Speak openly and regularly about your practice of being in the field, visiting other offices and sites and the insights you gain from it. And encourage employees to share their feedback directly with you – anonymously if necessary – when you are not around.
MBWA. Practice Tom Peter’s ‘management by walking around’ when you can and make sure you are visible. If most of your employees only see you once a year at the all-company meeting, that’s a problem. Make sure to get out of the C-suite. Meet with your direct reports in their offices. Engage your employees, visit offices and stores casually and without agenda. Get to know employees as people and ask them questions. Be curious. And if your company’s size or geographic complexity doesn’t allow for regular physical interaction, leverage technology to create connections by hosting live Q&A sessions, or create an ongoing CEO blog.
A new coat of paint looks better, but often masks issues that need to be addressed. It takes intentional work on the part of the leader to create a culture where employees feel comfortable putting down the paint brushes.
Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.