Managers Who Get Out There

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Underestimating the Value of Field Work

When professionals are promoted to managers, they tread dangerous waters. Moving away from the field but being enabled to make critical decisions for those who are in the field is a trap. For many managers, it seems like an enlightening period – the first step into leadership. But it can also be the beginning of darkness, the first step away from the real action. Sadly, the action only gets further away from that moment on unless managers make a conscious effort to get back out there.

There is something to be said about being in the field. Like a soldier in the trenches or a doctor without borders, theory will always be just hypothetical, but practice can never be disputed. The wealth of knowledge accessible through the real hands-on experiences professionals face can provide them with insight that managers can only get second hand.

As difficult or costly as it may be to get out in the field, effective managers do it because they know they must. Not because the organization expects them to, but because they see the value in it. Their perception of value is then passed on to the professionals. If the managers don’t see the value, then that perception cascades to the professionals. The value of the field work is then undermined or missed.

What better way is there to capture new insight and new information than seeing it for yourself? The even better news? Field work isn’t just about collecting new information so managers can make informed decisions, it’s also where managers can corroborate existing information. Field work is where managers can take all the feedback they received from their teams and test it out – “do customers really feel that way?” or “are our products really 2nd rate?”.  Corroborating is also necessary for the purpose of “squashing”. Managers can squash complaints when they have field work evidence. In the absence of evidence, managers need to dance a little, potentially exposing themselves to some fundamental leadership errors.

In addition to validating existing information and collecting new information, field work offers the opportunity to deepen a relationship. Of course, that can come with new dangers, but when the rapport isn’t quite there, due do proximity or frequency of interaction, then field work helps speed up the relationship development process.

Underestimating the value of field work can cause managers to be “out of touch”, the one thing they never want to be, especially in the eyes of their team.

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Carlo Sicoli is associate director, Custom Learning & Development at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business at York University.