Al Weatherhead, former CEO of Weatherhead Industries, made a point of visiting his factory floor every day. The highly profitable company manufactures plastic closures for household and pharmaceutical products, used by 150 companies, including Kraft and Proctor and Gamble.

Despite the pressures of his job, he was never too busy to get out on the floor. He once said, “I remember when I could go up and down the line and know everyone’s family stories and we all shared our wisdom.”

Employees felt they had a stake – and a say – in Weatherhead, and they contributed invaluable ideas. These are the kinds of ideas that out-of-touch leaders would never be able to access. In every organization, no matter what size or industry, CEOs, owners, and other top executives need to walk the floor. Get out of the office!

Why Should You Walk the Floor?

If leaders stay in their offices, secluded in the exclusive world of the C-suite, they isolate themselves from the people working with and for them. Leadership is all about connection, and there’s no way to form or foster those connections without shaking hands, asking questions, and keeping a finger on the pulse of the organization.

Walking the floor allows leaders to find out what their people are doing. Back that up: it allows them to find out who their people are! This can boost morale and engagement, while ensuring leaders are viewed as approachable. As human…

Oh, No! The Boss is Coming!

One of my members had a medium size distribution business. His offices were in the front of the building, and the warehouse was in the back. Every morning, he parked the car behind the warehouse, entered through the back door and “walk the floor” on the way to his office, shaking hands, and getting a feel for his company.

His approach had upsides and downsides. He was certainly tied in to what was going on in his organization, and he knew his people. On the other hand, he allowed himself to get too tied in. He started micromanaging. If someone dropped a gum wrapper on the floor, he was all over it.

How do leaders balance their approach so they are involved, but not interfering? They should start by asking themselves, “Why am I walking the floor?” If it is to catch someone doing something right, great. If it’s an opportunity to pick out what they’re doing wrong, then it’s counterproductive. You’ll start to erode trust, engagement and morale. You’ve got to walk the talk – and keep it positive.

Walking the “Floor” – Multinational Organizations

The how and the how often depends on the size of your organization. If you run a small company, walking the floor every day should become part of your normal routine. But what if you don’t? Here are a few tips that work with organizations of all sizes:

  • Town Hall Meetings.These meetings bring everyone together to discuss the state of the company. But more important than speeches and sound bites is the opportunity for employees to ask questions. Leaders can connect through their willingness not only to answer, but also to hear employee concerns and issues. With social media and technology, even multinational corporations can have “intimate” town hall gatherings.

  • Weekly or Monthly Fundamentals. Ritz Carlton is famous for its “Basics” of customer service. These 20 behaviors that employees are expected to integrate into their work, e.g. “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen,” and “Smile, we are on stage.” Employees and leaders review them, one a day, until all 20 are done. And then they start over. This is a way to “walk the floor,” to create and nurture the type of culture leaders want. Reviewing the fundamentals can be done every day, if possible, or once a week at a minimum.

  • Breakfasts/lunch/coffee with the Owner. Apple CEO Tim Cook regularly eats lunch with employees. This is such an unorthodox maneuver that it’s been the subject of numerous news reports. It’s also a great way for Cook to establish his own leadership – especially in contrast to Steve Jobs, who assuredly did not eat with his employees – and to connect with people.

Other CEOs and leaders hold “Breakfast with the CEO/Owner” (or lunch, coffee, etc.) during which they answer any questions and address concerns – or just chat. That’s not time wasted.

  • One-on-One Time. Making time for one-on-one conversations with direct reports is essential. Don’t grill, interrogate, or instruct. Instead, take the time to get to know everyone. Ask about their aspirations, their hobbies, and their lives. It’s their time, not yours. At the same time, you can’t help but benefit.

Walking the floor is integral in making connections and connected to the workings of the organization. If leaders are willing, like Al Weatherhead, to invite and accept the “wisdom” of their people, to invite their opinions, feedback, and questions, then it creates a company culture where morale, engagement, and satisfaction are high. And, with those elements, where can productivity and profitability go but up?