“Science may never come up with a better office communication system than the coffee break.” – Earl Wilson

 

“It must be nice to have the time to just walk around with a cup of coffee.”

I heard the words and recognized them for what they were: one of those not-so-subtle criticisms disguised as witty banter. The sort of thing you say to someone when you want to confront them without actually sparking a confrontation. But what struck me wasn’t the comment itself but the ignorance of the statement.

When I have the time – which seems increasingly elusive these days – I do walk around with a cup of coffee. As much as I can, even. I would do it every day if I could. But the truth is that I’m lucky to get out twice a week, and even then only if I can carve an hour or so out of my calendar. But I do make an effort to “just walk around with a cup of coffee.” I work to find that time. Because it matters.

A STEAMING CUP OF COFFEE

Wandering around with a cup of coffee was something I learned to do early in my military career, a technique shared by my first platoon sergeant. Sergeant First Class Wes Dennison was the epitome of a grizzled old non-commissioned officer – gruff, direct, and respected by everyone he encountered. He said what he meant and meant what he said; you were never left wondering how he felt about something because he would tell you exactly what was on his mind.

Despite his rough exterior, Wes Dennison knew how to connect with people. And the military is, above all else, a people business. From our first days together – a cold November field exercise in a Fort Campbell training area – we practiced what he called management by walking around. We’d fill our canteen cups with hot coffee from the battalion maintenance officer’s 5-ton Expando Van and walk the perimeter to check on soldiers.

As we made our way through and around the wooded terrain, we’d spend time with each and every soldier in our platoon. We talked to them about what they were doing and why, assess their progress as we “dug in” to our defensive positions, and confirm the tactical elements of our collective efforts. At the same time, we’d work in conversations that touched on everything from family life to personal issues and concerns. We opened doors that might not have been opened otherwise. We built trust. We built camaraderie. We built a team.

In the years that followed, leadership by walking around became a staple in my kit bag. I used it to break the ice with new arrivals (even when the I was the new arrival), broker back-office deals when progress seemed at a standstill, counsel subordinates (sometimes without them even knowing), and get a feel for workplace morale (whether that workplace was in a corner office or a GP Medioum tent on some faraway Forward Operating Base). Wherever I went, my cup of coffee came with me.

LEADERSHIP BY WALKING AROUND

Leadership by walking around has long been the gold standard for engaged – and engaging – leaders. In their 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, management consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified a single common factor among the most successful companies: leaders who spend more time outside of their offices than inside. These leaders were better connected with their employees, more aware of the operational side of the business, and uniquely postured to resolve challenges before they became problems. Peters further explored the subject in his 1988 book, A Passion for Excellence, in which he firmly asserted that it was a core tenet of leadership excellence.

To the untrained eye, leadership by walking around can be confused as just walking around. But it’s much more than aimless wandering. It’s an art. It’s an unstructured and unplanned method of interacting with your team, executed in such a way that allows you to engage and communicate with people in their space, on their turf. In turn, this interaction enables leaders to better understand the issues and concerns among subordinates while gaining insight into innovative ideas brewing at lower levels of the organization.

But there’s also a science to the art of leadership by walking around. It won’t work if it’s overly structured, but it needs some degree of structure. First, you have to be relaxed; not too casual, but not too formal, either. Second, you have to listen more than you talk. Lean in with strong emotional and social intelligence. Third, you need to share your time equally; favor one part of your team over another and it can produce unintended – and often undesired – effects. Fourth, use it as an opportunity to reinforce your intent, vision, and values; remind people why what they do matters and that you value their efforts.

As an exercise in active listening and engagement, leadership by walking around tends to supercharge morale – it motivates, inspires, and connects people in the workplace. Frequent and natural engagement is infectious among members of a team, and if the leadership is setting the example, others will follow. People genuinely feel more a part of the team when their leadership circulates among them, especially when accountability follows those engagements. They build trust in the leadership, which leads to increased productivity and performance.

START WALKING

Take that first step. Get out of the office, get out of the command post, get out and meet your people where they work. Push away from the computer, put down the PowerPoint slides, take a break from your phone. Don’t wait to find the perfect opportunity to get the team together for mandatory fun, grab a cup of coffee and start walking and talking. Build relationships, build trust, build camaraderie. Build your team.

All it takes to get started is a steaming cup of coffee. A cup of coffee and a friendly ear have an uncanny ability to get even the quietest people talking. You can feel the calm, smell the aroma, sense the serenity. It produces a moment of Zen unlike any other. In the hands of a wandering leader, coffee is the great equalizer.

So, yeah. It is nice to have the time to just walk around with a cup of coffee.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.