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Management by talking around

4 min read


In the 1980s, MBWA was the rage. It involved the radical notion that leaders could drive better results by stepping out of their offices and engaging with employees and the work flow in a less formal, more impromptu fashion. “Management by walking around” changed the cadence of business — in large part through greater leadership involvement and presence.

Fast forward three decades, and just “being there” has become table stakes. Now leaders must really leverage those moments with others, and the most natural and effective tool for accomplishing this is conversation.

A quick Amazon search reveals that thousands of books are published each year on the subject, teaching readers how to engage in conversations that span from crucial to courageous, passionate to powerful, fierce to focused, and authentic to action-oriented. Advice focuses on the importance of small talk and big ideas, listening and messaging, as well as on the art and science of the act.

Conversation, in its range of flavors and forms, is recognized as a powerful feature of the business landscape. But the value of talk goes beyond the words and information transmitted. The investment of even a few moments in conversation conveys messages about respect, importance, and value — messages that can have far-reaching implications for people and the business.

The obvious, first-level benefits of management by talking around, or MBTA, are greater understanding and learning that flows in two directions — from leaders to employees and from employees to leaders. Current data. Better insights. Improved context.

But these fundamental business outcomes are just the beginning and act as a trigger for subtler but equally powerful human outcomes. Connection and cohesion. Trust. Engagement. Culture building. Loyalty and commitment. Alignment. Reflection and action. Development.

Small conversational moments can yield disproportionate results for leaders who know how to leverage them. Four tips can help optimize your MBTA effort:

  • Create a discipline. Set time aside on your calendar for informal exchanges with others. Busy-ness and efficiency are the enemy of conversation-based leadership. So, prioritize this like you would any other critical activity. Block out even 20 minutes every day. Compress your normal one-hour meetings to 50 minutes and redeploy the remaining 10 minutes for unstructured conversation, whether with those meeting participants or others. Try setting a goal for yourself. Add a to-do to connect with a certain number of employees each day. Create a discipline, and MBTA will ultimately become a habit.
  • Bring value. A lot of communication advice focuses on listening, and that’s obviously critical. But employees also want to hear from you. Part of the cache of conversing with leaders is getting the latest and greatest, being “on the inside” and “in the know.” So consider your audience in advance and be prepared with nuggets of information that will leave them feeling informed and inspired.
  • Take the “question-a-week” challenge. Identify one topic you’d like to explore and select a question that you’ll ask everyone you encounter. It might be focused squarely on the business or on more diffuse, human issues. Some examples:
    • “What’s the biggest changes you’re seeing in our customers?”
    • “What one organizational change would enable you to do a better job?”
    • “What have you learned this week?”
    • “What do you think is our biggest liability/opportunity?”

Do this regularly, and you’ll quickly become a one-(wo)man think tank. You’ll develop a repository of important information about the organization and staff while building employee engagement.

  • Track it. Don’t just go through the motions of conversing, capture what you learn. Keep tick sheets. Note themes. Create reminders. Close the loop with individuals. Report back to the organization. Letting others know that they were heard (even if you choose not to take action on their thoughts/ideas) goes a long way toward demonstrating respect, building leadership credibility and laying the foundation for generous and trust-filled exchanges in the future.

When you think about it, all successful deals, solutions, improvements, results and business begin with conversation. Conversation is the currency of business. Spend it generously and regularly and you’ll likely realize an unbeatable return on your investment.

What about you? How valuable is conversation in your organization? How can leaders do a better job of managing by talking around?

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at