Why a leader must walk slowly through the halls

One of the best ways to stay connected to your people and keep track of how they’re doing is to approach the task informally as you move among them

Boss having a friendly conversation with his employees

One of the greatest mistakes leaders make is spending too much time in their offices and not enough time out among the people. Leaders are often agenda driven, task focussed, and action oriented because they like to get things done. They hole up in their offices, rush to meetings, and ignore everyone they pass in the halls along the way. What a mistake! First and foremost, leadership is a people business. If you forget the people, you’re undermining your leadership, and you run the risk of having it erode away. Then one day when you think you’re leading, you’ll turn around and discover that nobody is following and you’re only taking a walk.

Relationship building is always the foundation of effective leadership. Leaders who ignore the relational aspect of leadership tend to rely on their position instead. Or they expect competence to do ‘all the talking’ for them. True, good leaders are competent, but they are also intentionally connected to the people they lead.

One of the best ways to stay connected to your people and keep track of how they’re doing is to approach the task informally as you move among the people. As you see people in the parking lot, chat with them. Go to meetings a few minutes early to see people, but don’t start in on the agenda until you’ve had time to catch up. And, as the title of this article suggests, take time to walk slowly through the halls. Connect with people and give them an opportunity to make contact with you.

When it comes to connecting informally, leaders in the middle of an organisation often have a distinct advantage over their leadership counterparts at the top. Leaders in the middle are viewed as more accessible than top leaders. They are perceived as having more time [even if it’s not true]. And they are seen as more approachable. Their people don’t worry about ‘bothering them’ and are less reluctant to take their time, unlike people who report directly to the top leader.

Walking slowly through the halls is a useful skill for leading down no matter where you are in an organisation, but the best time to master it is while you’re in the middle, not after you get to the top. To help you develop this skill successfully, here are a few suggestions.

Good leaders are intentionally connected to the people they lead

1. Slow down

To connect with people, you travel at their speed. When connecting with your leader, chances are you need to speed up. Though it is not always true, in general the higher you go in an organisation’s hierarchy, the faster the leaders travel. The leader at the top often has boundless energy and is very quick mentally.

Conversely, when you move down people move more slowly. Once again, not everyone will be slower, but in general it is true. People at the bottom don’t process information quickly, and they don’t make decisions as fast. Part of that is due to having less information. Some of it comes from having less experience.

Most people who want to lead are naturally fast. But if you want become a better leader, you actually need to slow down. You can move faster alone. You can garner more individual honours alone. But to lead others, you need to slow down enough to connect with them, engage them, and take them with you.

If you want become a better leader, you actually need to slow down

If you have children, you instinctively understand this. The next time you need to get something done around the house, try doing it two ways. First, have your kids help. That means you need to enlist them. You need to train them. You need to direct them. You need to supervise them. You need to redirect them. You need to recapture and re-enlist them when they wander off. Depending on the ages of your children, it can be pretty exhausting, and even when the work is completed, it may not be to the standard you’d like.

Then try doing the task alone. How much faster can you go? How much better is the quality of the work? How much less aggravation is there to deal with? No wonder many parents start off enlisting their children in tasks to teach and develop them but then throw in the towel after a while and do the work themselves.

Working alone is faster [at least in the beginning], but it doesn’t have the same return. If you want your children to learn, grow, and reach their potential, you need to pay the price and take the time and trouble to lead them through the process-even when it means slowing down or giving up some of your agenda. It’s similar with employees. Leaders aren’t necessarily the first to cross the finish line-people who run alone are the fastest. Leaders are the first  to bring all of their people across the finish line. The payoff to leadership-at work or home-comes on the back end.

2. Express that you care

When you go to your mailbox at home, I bet one of the first things you do is shuffle through the various items. What are you on the look-out for? You’re probably looking for something with a handwritten envelope, because it’s usually a sign that what’s inside is something personal from someone you know. We all desire a personal touch from someone who cares about us.

I read somewhere that the United States Postal Service delivers 170 billion pieces of mail every year. Yet in this vast sea of mail, less than four per cent of the total is comprised of personal letters. That means you have to sort through 100 bills, magazines, bank statements, credit card offers, ads, and other pieces of junk mail to find just four items from someone who knows and actually cares about you.

The people who follow you also desire a personal touch. They want to know that others care about them. Most would be especially pleased to know that their boss had genuine concern about them and valued them as human beings, not just as workers who can get things done for them or the organisation.

We all desire a personal touch from someone who cares about us

3. Create a healthy balance of personal and professional interest

Leaders who show interest in the individuals who work for them need to find the balance between personal and professional interest. Professional interest shows that you have the desire to help them. That is something all good leaders share. Personal interest goes deeper—it shows your heart.

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When you take interest in your people as human beings, you need to be sure not to cross the line. There is a point at which interest becomes inappropriate. You mustn’t be nosy. Your desire should be to help, not to invade someone’s privacy or make them feel uncomfortable.

Start by asking fairly neutral questions. You can safely ask how someone’s spouse or children are doing. You can ask about people’s hobbies or other outside interests. Or you can ask a very general question such as, “How is everything else going?” Then pay attention to not only the content of their answer, but also for any kind of emotional reaction. If you sense that there might be something there, then ask a non-threatening follow-up question that asks if everything is okay-but don’t push. If they choose to talk, don’t judge, don’t interrupt, and don’t be too quick to offer advice unless they specifically ask for it.

Why should you take the time to do this? The reality is that when employees’ personal lives are going well, their professional lives often follow suit. What happens at home colours every aspect of people’s lives, including their work. If you have an idea where people are personally, you can know what to expect from them at work, and you may get the opportunity to help them along.

Your desire should be to help, not to invade someone’s privacy or make them feel uncomfortable

4. Pay attention when people start avoiding you

If you make it a habit to walk slowly through the halls, you will get to know your people and the organisation better. You will know when things are working. Your leadership intuition will increase, and when something is wrong, you will pick up on it much more quickly.

Most people are creatures of habit. They fall into patterns and do things the same way most of the time. As you walk around, you will get used to seeing people. Because you will be seen as approachable, people will come out of their offices or cubicles to chat with you. They’ll be visible. If something is wrong with somebody who is normally communicative, that person will suddenly avoid you. So as you walk around, you have to ask yourself, Who am I not seeing?

Often it’s not what people say; it’s what they’re not saying that is a tip-off that something isn’t right. People are always quick to bring good news, but they avoid bringing bad news. I see examples of this all the time in my consulting company, ISS. When we are working with a leader to try to develop a partnership, if that leader intends to sign with us, we hear about it right away. If that leader doesn’t, she takes quite a while to make contact with us. A good 360-Degree Leader always slows down enough to be looking, listening, and reading between the lines.

Often it’s not what people say; it’s what they’re not saying that is a tip-off that something isn’t right

5. Tend to the people, and they will tend to the business

A 360-Degree Leader has many exceptional qualities. But one thing they all have in common is that despite their passion for the vision and their love of action, they give the majority of their effort to the people. Leaders who tend only to business often end up losing the people and the business. But leaders who tend to the people usually build up the people-and the business.

As you strive to walk slowly through the halls, I want to encourage you to find your own unique way of doing it. Look for practices that fit your personality, working situation, and leadership style. One evening in the fall when I was watching Monday Night Football, I saw a wonderful example of a leader who was doing just that. The halftime feature was about NFL coach Dick Vermeil. He was being interviewed in a studio about his team, the Kansas City Chiefs, and how his season was going, but that’s not what intrigued me.

Between interview questions, they were showing Vermeil and his team during a practice. As the players stretched during warm-ups, the veteran coach walked up and down the rows of players, chatting with them. He stopped next to one player, and I could hear him ask, “How’s your wife doing?” And they dialogued for a while.

Leaders who tend only to business often end up losing the people and the business

The interviewer asked Vermeil about his interaction, and he explained that the wife of that player had been fighting lupus. He went on to say that he cares about more than how his players catch the ball or tackle. He interacts with them as people first, then as football players. I’ve since talked to Dick Vermeil, and he told me that he often has players over to his house so that they can get to know each other better.

What’s interesting to me is that when Vermeil came out of retirement to coach the St. Louis Rams in 1997, after a 14-year hiatus, I remember hearing reports that players were skeptical of Vermeil’s methods and thought that he was old-fashioned and out of touch. And he kept telling them to just hang in there with him and see what happened. What happened was the team won the Super Bowl in 1999.

Will Vermeil win another Super Bowl? I don’t know. But I do know this: he has found his own way of walking slowly through the halls that keeps him visible, available, and connected. And because of that, his players respect him and work hard for him because they know he cares about them. A leader can hardly ask for more than that.

Excerpted with permission from The 360° Leader by John C. Maxwell. Published by Jaico Books.


A version of this article was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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