Articles

Getting Management Visibility Right

September 27, 2021 - By Josh Hayman, Associate, BA Hons Psychology

Management visibility programmes can contribute to increasing or decreasing legitimacy in an organisation. Having spoken to recipients of management visibility programmes over the years, I have heard anecdotes in equal measure about how these programmes have been both positively and negatively received by employees.

In 2013 and 2014 I observed such a programme making a significantly positive contribution to management/employee relationships. In the organisation concerned, a large platinum mine in South Africa, the programme was also credited with making a significant contribution to improved safety performance that was unmatched in its industry.

Their “Visible Felt Leadership” (VFL) programme, which I witnessed over two years, got the following 5 things right:

  1. It was done with the right intent. Very simply, the motive was to give and not to take. Leaders were there to understand, to observe, to ask questions, to coach and to make practical contributions. Over time, people went from regarding management’s presence with suspicion, to looking forward to visits because they became an opportunity to showcase their best, to learn, and to have their contribution issues and challenges heard and resolved.
  2. It was owned and modelled by the executive on the site. The key executive on the site took personal responsibility for leading by example and modelling the behaviour with all leaders. Every Wednesday, the executive head of mining production would visit a different working place on a different shaft and would rotate through every working area on every mine. Each visit started with a briefing by the vertical leadership team in the working area (from the mine manager down to the shift supervisor, miner or engineering foreperson). The focus of the head of mining was on a coaching rather than a reporting interaction with the team. He would place little focus on reporting back the results in the working area, and far more on assessing management’s understanding of the means, ability and accountability issues impacting people’s contributions. He did this deliberately, taking care to point out to them how he had modelled this, and then set clear expectations that they should do the same on their own visits.
  3. All senior managers were required to do the same. It was mandatory that on a Wednesday morning, all of senior management in production and engineering would spend that 2–3-hour period visiting places of work, modelling the behaviours set by the executive. Apart from the entire mine taking out 15 minutes for Safety at 11h00 each day, nothing was viewed as more significant, or more important than these visits. It was impossible to schedule a meeting or get hold of anyone in senior management between 06h00 and 10h00 on a Wednesday morning.
  4. The focus was on standards. The focus of all visits was not on outcomes or results of any kind. The focus was on the standards that, when consistently met, produced the desired outcomes. Both seemingly small and large standards were of equal importance. Things like travel-ways being washed and cleaned as well as signage being up to date was just as important as drilling and blasting standards. Small things and big things were equally at issue. I once saw a mine manager on the same visit treat a non-adherence to a critical safety standard for blasting with the same seriousness as he treated the poor condition of employee toilets underground. In another case the head of production, on witnessing really poor conditions in which rock drilling teams had to operate, got the senior leaders on that shift to spend the next shift acting as a rock drilling crew (under the watchful eye of the actual rock drill operators!) so they would be reminded first-hand of just how difficult the job was without adequate means. The overall message created was “whatever we do, small or large, we do it well”. It also served to cement in employees’ minds that standards pertaining directly to performance as well as to things like basic housekeeping, safety and employee wellness were of equal value.
  5. Executives listened, observed and gave feedback. Management was there primarily to understand, not to be understood. What they were doing was in effect, watching the game. They spent a great deal of their time listening, asking questions and engaging with employees. When giving feedback, their felt behaviour was not always “nice”, but was always balanced. Leaders paid attention to detail, and when standards were not being met, the “why” was intensely interrogated, sometimes all the way up the line. Carelessness was called attention to directly, and with the right person. Exemplary examples of adherence were always sought, and deeply praised and appreciated. Given that all areas knew in advance when the visits would happen, they always had the opportunity to show off their best. Leaders would also make sure they walked away from the visits having focused on both.

The above was not achieved overnight. The discipline of putting this standard into place and getting more and more leaders doing it with the right focus and motive, took time, practice and discipline. In multiple underground visits I participated in over this period I observed slow but steady improvements in these practices. In an industry where the default behaviour is to take charge, exercise control and focus on results, leaders incrementally shifted away from a fundamentally controlling mindset to an enabling one. There is no doubt in my mind that when a leadership team gets these practices right, it makes a significant contribution the legitimacy of leadership in an organisation.

Josh Hayman
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