In Search for Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman chronicle a number of successful Fortune 500 companies, seeking for common themes across thriving businesses.
One pattern they noticed was that many prosperous companies had supervisors who left their offices to walk around the workplace to engage with employees and observe business operations.
This leadership style was coined Management by Wandering Around (MBWA). Although the name may imply an aimless stroll around the office, MBWA is a deliberate strategy for leaders to visit their organizational trenches. By observing frontline employees in their element, managers can make more-informed decisions about their company.
As it turns out, MBWA is good for more than just business leaders. School administrators must also understand the effectiveness of this management strategy. Rather than govern from the main office, school leaders should prioritize getting into classrooms and other learning spaces for the purpose of understanding the lived experience of students and staff.
Perhaps most importantly, firsthand perspective is critical for decision making. As opposed to forming opinions based on subjective hearsay and unsubstantiated rumor, leaders who actively engage in the school enviornment can use personal observations to inform - and justify - important decisions.
Why answer email from the office ... when you can answer email while listening to a read aloud?
Common belief is that the higher you go in administration, the more disconnected you are from student learning and the everyday operations of a school. Having worked as an assistant principal, principal, and superintendent, there is truth to this sentiment.
As an assistant principal, I was heavily involved in our school’s daily operations. My days consisted of handling discipline, assisting teachers, supervising lunches, visiting classrooms, and doing what was needed to keep the building running. This steady contact with students and teachers provided direct knowledge of the conditions for learning and a constant pulse on the school environment.
As a principal, my job responsibilities shifted. While I was still running the building, I had fewer management duties in terms of student discipline and building supervision. While I welcomed delegating these tasks to our assistant principals and support staff, I began to miss out on valuable opportunities to read the undercurrent in the building by engaging with students and staff.
As a superintendent, I find myself even more removed from our daily operations. My job requires me to look at our district from a 30,000-foot view. Although this systems perspective is critical for vision casting and resource alignment, my understanding of the staff and student experience is suboptimal. Heck, my office isn’t even inside a school – I have to drive offsite just to get a glimpse of students!
Like other administrators who have climbed the school leadership ladder, it’s a strange feeling to have so much distance between your work and the real work. However, there are ways to lessen the detachment. One of those methods is to embrace an MBWA mentality.
School leaders who get out of the office and into trenches are often amazed by how much they learn. Classrooms, hallways, offices, teachers’ lounges – there are no bad options. Simply visiting these spaces with a servant leadership mentality helps leaders understand their organization’s current reality.
The spreadsheet holds me accountable for visiting all 19 of our buildings.
One of the biggest barriers to MBWA is the perception of being too busy. “I would love to get out of the office,” these leaders say. “But I’ve just got too much work that needs to be done.”
While there may be times when administrators are legitimately busy, other times bosses will say “I’m too busy” without actually assessing the situation. Let’s be honest, much of a school leader’s work is done behind the laptop screen. Whether they are responding to email, uploading reports, crafting communications, or analyzing data, many administrators spend their days glued to a computer.
When this is the case, leaders should consider killing two birds with one stone by taking their work with them. Instead of working in seclusion, why not take your laptop into the library, cafeteria, commons, or classroom? Not only can they complete work, leaders can learn about their school and earn “visibility points” along the way.
Despite seeming like a reasonable compromise, many leaders push back on this thinking. The following are seven of the most common excuses, along with appropriate rebuttals:
“But my work is confidential!” Many administrators are concerned that others could stumble upon classified information. Surely, you’ll want to refrain from drafting that employee termination letter in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. However, leaders who are mindrul of the work they complete in public settings experience few issues.
“But I’ll be less productive!” Leaders often overestimate their productivity levels when working in the office. Between phone calls, impromptu meetings, and other interruptions, finding a block of time to do anything meaningful is difficult. Ironically, many bosses who bring their work with them realize they are more productive with their time.
“But I have discipline to do!” Rather than bring students to the office, administrators should bring their office to students. When I was a building administrator, I would deliberately visit classrooms of students who needed minor behavior consequences. This allowed me to complete a classroom walk-through ... while also pulling individual students into the hallway for private disciplinary conversations.
“But I’ll distract the students!” Some leaders think completing “busy” work in a classroom or library will create a distraction for students. I have found the opposite to be true – students are actually on better behavior and more engaged when an administrator is present.
“But I’ll distract the teacher!” Some leaders are concerned that they will make teachers and other school employees anxious by unexpectedly visiting their space. To prevent this from happening, school leaders should communicate ahead of time about their plans to regularly visit classrooms and other learning spaces.
“But I’ve got so many (kids/employees/buildings)!” Some large-school principals and superintendents like to argue that their job is “too big” or "too important" to get out of the office. Baloney! Whether they manage 300 students or 30,000 students ... school leaders must find time to witness teaching and learning. Pro Tip: Any time a meeting is cancelled at the last minute, use this gift of time to visit classrooms.
“But I’ll feel weird!” The first time you do work with your laptop in the library or lunchroom, you might feel awkward. Get over it. Once you become a regular at working in these places, others will get used to – and appreciate – your presence. As with any new habit, getting into a routine helps eliminate most feelings of discomfort.
School leaders who embrace a Management by Wandering Around mentality give themselves an opportunity to understand the current reality of staff and students. This firsthand perspective provides administrators with the insight needed to make decisions that accurately reflect organizational needs.
Let’s stop using “I’m too busy” as an excuse for staying in the office.
Instead, let’s visit spaces where the real work is being done.