Thoughts from the C-Suite


When I first entered corporate management, I had the benefit of working, a few layers down, for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.  This CEO was a shirtsleeves boss, literally a leader who walked the floor of every plant the company managed back in the eighties. He was known for arriving earlier than expected whenever he had a management or customer meeting at any of those many plants. He’d leave his jacket at the front desk and would spend significant time walking up to employees he encountered as he, often alone, toured the plant getting that employee’s view of the business. This leadership process gave him a first hand experience of the firm’s successes and challenges in serving its customers. It served him well as that great leader led his firm to become the number one company in its industry.

I personally had my own direct experience with our CEO on one of those walk arounds.  I was part of the team that had recently built a new plant in New York City.  As head of customer service, I was individually responsible for outfitting our customer conference rooms, spending the company’s money on what were then the best conference room chairs and tables money could buy to support the client working environment the business required.

The CEO stopped by earlier than expected at our big customer celebration of building this multi-million dollar facility and came up to me and asked for a quiet tour of the plant. I walked the plant with him and introduced him to our employees as we walked the floor.  Mr. Lake spent a couple of minutes with each of these employees,  many of them new to the firm, and asked about their roles and what they expected from the challenges they would have there. I was taken by his knowledge of the equipment and the individual jobs required of this sophisticated computer driven platform.

We finished our tour in the client conference rooms. He asked me why we had outfitted these conference rooms the way we had. I explained the customer work environment these rooms supported, often days of legal and investment document generation at these tables as initial public offerings and merger and acquisitions were finally hammered out and prepared for the financial markets. To my astonishment and candidly feeling a bit shaky, the CEO looked at the chairs I had just purchased and said something to the effect that he wanted to try out one of these quite expensive chairs. He proceeded to sit down, push the chair on its wheels and throw his weight back.  He got up and said “ the chair was a good buy” and then thanked me for my time and joined the senior execs who were just gathering to prepare for the event.

I learned a lot from my personnel time with this highly successful CEO about leadership, attention to detail and being completely engaged in all aspects of the business. I made it part of my own development as a manager and a business leader. As a  coach and mentor to new business leaders, it’s an experience that remains a best practice, no matter what business or discipline a senior executive is responsible for.  Especially in today’s rapid fire change environment where technology and business fluctuations are a common experience, “walking the floor” remains a sound process for engaging directly with those who have the customer as their primary focus. Billions have been spent on analysis and sophisticated processes from consulting firms, business gurus and business schools, much of it helpful, some less so. The “walk the floor” ROI of the time spent in individual conversations with those who work for your company, understanding why what works and what challenges are in the front of best customer outcome, is often priceless. Build it into your leadership character, so that it is continuous and balanced. It is a proven discovery method that helps shape an executive’s understanding of the business. 

It is not a “gotcha” process.To make it worthwhile, “walking the floor”information is precious and conversation with the business leader is there to be shared for the betterment of the business without fear of retribution or retaliation. That takes practice and care in making it core to your own  management style and a done in a disciplined way. For more on this and other business practices, please reach out to Better Leaders.  We’re here to help and to serve.