“Undercover Boss” is a popular CBS television series. Each week a top executive of a corporation, in disguise, assumes the duties of a lower-level employee of the company. The bosses are typically surprised by what they find out in the trenches. The current president of Churchill Downs, Inc., William Carstanjen, participated in an episode of the reality show.

Like the executives in “Undercover Boss,” business owners and upper-level managers can become isolated and insufficiently informed of what is transpiring on the front lines, where the rubber meets the road. In the 1940s, Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard coined the term “management by walking around” (MBWA) for his approach to the problem. MBWA is the practice of corporate leaders getting out of their offices and into the field to keep abreast of how well the plans and strategies formulated in the executive suite are playing out.

MBWA is nothing new. President Abraham Lincoln often dropped in on union troop encampments during the U. S. Civil War to assess for himself readiness and morale. The late Steve Jobs of Apple was a modern-day proponent of MBWA. When Stanley Gault was the Chairman of Goodyear, he would visit tire stores on Saturday morning and strike up conversations with customers, especially the customers who bought a brand other than Goodyear.

In a unique twist of MBWA, the CEO of a company that purchased businesses for its portfolio would sometimes work for a week at a prospective acquisition, while masquerading as a member of the janitorial staff. This cover provided him with ground-level insights that could not be gleaned from reading financial reports or by simply talking with employees or customers.

Racetracks and various suppliers of goods and services to the racing industry started small but are now complex businesses. Similarly, managers of large farms and some trainers can be responsible for hundreds of employees and horses. As these organizations grow, the founders and upper-echelon executives become less and less hands-on, and that is why MBWA can be so valuable.

MBWA, done correctly, is not a ploy to demonstrate that the boss cares. Nor should MBWA segue into micromanaging. Rather, MBWA is a time-proven method for corporate leaders to maintain an essential understanding of their company’s culture and operations, even in the age of instant communications.

Copyright © 2012 The Blood-Horse. Used with permission.