I went to a party yesterday and meet a wonderful lady. She was in her late 70s, full of energy and enthusiasm. She was telling tales of places she had visited, people she had worked with and things she had done as well as expressing her disappointment that, after two bouts of cancer, she no longer had the strength to return a serve at tennis and was now considering taking up table tennis!
We got to talking about what I did around management development and training and the phrase that immediately came to her mind was the importance of ‘Walking the Ship’. Apparently, an old naval term meaning, as she put it, the critical importance of the Captain regularly walking his ship. She went onto to express her disappointment that so few managers and leaders today seem to recognise the value of this simple exercise.
Fortunately some do. A couple of weeks ago I meet with a new Principle of a college. This is a college where change is required quickly and so he needs to understand the reality of the situation and win over the hearts and minds of his staff as soon as possible. He was sharing with me what he learnt by going down to visit the construction department. There he was, dressed in his smart suit complete with white shirt and distinguished tie, amongst the dust and work of construction. He shared with me the enthusiasm that he sensed in the department, what their plans were for the year and what they were aiming to achieve. He even knew that some of the team car pooled their commute into work. Even though he had only been in post for a couple of weeks he already ‘knew’ – not just the reports, financial figures or what his senior management team told him in their efforts to present the ‘right picture’ to him. He knew what was actually happening and his staff knew him.
When was the last time you ‘walked the ship’? Do you know what is happening in the far corner of your building or department? Do you know who car pools in your company?
Like many management activities this is important but not necessarily urgent. If you recognise the benefits of walking the ship yet struggle to complete it then start by diarising specific times to walk around. And set out with some questions to answer, such as ‘Who is doing brilliant work today?’, ‘Who is unclear about the direction of the company / department?’, ‘Who is working hard despite difficult circumstances and I could make their work easier or more efficient?’ and, of course, the best one of all ‘What can I learn today?’