One day back at MarkLogic, we invited our local congresswoman, Jackie Speier, to visit our offices. Regardless of what you may think of her politics, she’s an impressive person with an fascinating background including, for those with long memories, that she was the congressional aide shot five times and left for dead on the runway in Guyana when Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown. I was looking forward to meeting her.
She arrived — early of course — with a few handlers. We exchanged the usual greetings and took a few pictures. Then, she said, “would you mind if I went around and met a few people before the presentation?” “No, no — not at all,” I said. Leaving the handlers behind, off she went into the sea of cubicles.
What I saw next blew me away.
Cube by cube she proceeded, “Hi, I’m Jackie — what’s your name?” “Great, what do you do here?” “Oh, I see [from the picture on your desk] you have a son, what’s his name?’ “How old is he?” “Oh, [insert something in common here].” More chatter. A few laughs. “Are there any questions I can answer for you today?”
There are extroverted people. There are gregarious people. There are charismatic people. And then there are politicians. She was the best room-worker I had ever seen in my life and she did it as effortlessly as she did naturally.
“This,” I thought, ” is why you’re not a politician, Dave. You have no skills.”
But leading the troops is a key part of the job of a startup CEO. While such glad-handing often comes naturally to sales-oriented CEOs, it usually does not for more product-oriented ones. A sales-oriented CEO is typically an extrovert; a product-oriented one an introvert. So what’s a poor introvert to do?
First, Run A Normal Communications Program
All CEOs should run some sort of baseline company communications program. This could look something like:
- Bi-annual kickoffs where the company is brought together to hear about progress, learn about new initiatives, and recognize achievement. Think: educate, decorate, inebriate.
- Post-quarter all hands calls/meetings after the off-quarters to discuss company performance, progress on quarterly goals, and go-forward priorities.
- Topical all-hands emails and follow-up live calls/meeting to announce breaking news and provide commentary.
- Separate and/or built-in “town hall” sessions with open employee Q&A to the CEO and the exec team.
This is baseline. If you’re not doing this and you’re over about 20 people you need to start doing aspects of it. If you’re over 150-200 people you should be doing all of this and quite possibly more.
For most CEOs — even the introverts — this isn’t hard. It’s structured. There are presentations. Most of the questions in Q&A can be anticipated, if not solicited in advance.
Management by Walking Around
Let’s say you’ve set up such a program and are getting good feedback on it. But nevertheless you’re still getting feedback like:
“You’re in your office and in meetings too much. People want to see more of you. The answer isn’t more all hands meetings. Those are fine. But people want to see you in a more informal and/or 1-1 way. I know, you need to do more MBWA — management by walking around. You’ll be great at it!”
“No, I won’t,” thinks the highly self-aware introvert CEO, imaging a nightmare that goes something like this:
CEO: “Hey, Bro-dy!” [Struggling to choose between Bro and Buddy.]
Employee: “Did you just call me grody? What the –“
CEO: “No, Buddy, no, I called you Bro, Pal.”
CEO: “So, how’s my Buddy doing?” [Slaps his back.]
Employee: “Ow! I just had shoulder surgery.”
CEO: “Whoops, sorry about that.”
Employee: “No problem.”
CEO: [Notices wedding picture on desk.] “Hey, how’s that lovely wife?”
Employee: “We split up three months ago.”
CEO: [Thinking: “I bet this never happens to Jackie Speier, I bet this never happens to … “]
Sure, the CEO thinks, let’s try some more MBWA. Or maybe not.
Find Your Way
The problem here is simple — it’s a classic, in this case “reverse,” delegation mistake. The well-intentioned feedback-giver isn’t just telling you what needs to be done (i.e., help people get to know you better through more individualized interaction), they’re telling you how to do it (i.e., management by walking around). So the solution is simple: listen to the what and find your own way of how. If you’re not a natural grip-and-grin type, them MBWA isn’t going to work for you. What might? Here are some ideas:
- Every Friday morning do three, half-hour 1-1s with employees across the organization. This will play to your introvert strength in 1-1 meetings and and your desire to have substantial, not superficial, interactions with people. If you’re disciplined, you’ll get to know 156 people/year this year.
- Management by sitting in the way (MBSITW). Pick a busy spot — e.g., the coffee room or the cafeteria — and camp out there for a few hours every week. Work on your laptop when no one’s around but when someone walks in, say hi, and engage in a 1-1 chat.
- Small-group town hall Q&A sessions. Attend one department’s group meeting and do a one-hour town hall Q&A. It’s not quite 1-1, but it’s definitionally a smaller forum which will provide more intimacy.
- Thursday lunches. Every Thursday have lunch with 3-4 people chosen at semi-random so as to help you build relationships across the organisation.
So, the next time someone tells you that you need to do more MBWA, thank them for input, and then go find your way of solving the underlying problem.
Great stuff Dave — except maybe for MBSITW.
Not a terrible idea, but…. that coffee room is where people go to talk about *you*. It’s important to leave some spac e for that. Also, working your laptop is likely to make you look unapproachable. All in all it sounds like a Dilbert waiting to happen.
“We can’t go get coffee right now, because the boss is in there. Do you think he thinks we’re spending too much time goofing off and he’s cracking the whip? Are we going to lose the espresso machine?” And maybe: “Bro, I’m going to dig that Facebook recruiter email outta the trash. Just in case.”
I hear you Michael. The idea was to pick a high-traffic spot where you’d bump into people. I suppose you could sit in a low traffic spot, but then you might as well be in your office! FWIW, it did work pretty well for me, but I was usually pretty careful to keep an eye out for people entering, look up, and say “hi” to get things going. I’d get way more people into chats that way than sitting in my office for sure. I guess it depends on how often you do it, how you execute it, and how busy your coffee room is! Thanks for reading and I hope you’re well.
I think I have seen these concepts used in practice. As another introvert I can clearly relate to all or at least most of these. While not a soon-to-be CEO, most of these can be applied in real life.
I remember this visit. She pointed out the levee around our parking lot and explained that she had gotten that built. :-)
She has a stunning grasp of detail and an amazing presence. I came away from that wishing that I lived in her district.
Yep. Her presence was indeed amazing. I suppose what you’d expect for someone who gets elected to Congress when you think about it, but nevertheless.
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