Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar, has a sign at the entrance to top management’s offices that reads, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
Leading a Fortune 500 company could be an easy excuse for neglecting the little people in favor of big clients, big strategies, and public engagements. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, can’t neglect anyone or anything when they start out. It’s all important, it’s not all comfortable, but you do everything possible to succeed. And when you do succeed, things become more comfortable. Good people join you, systems become organized, and customers show appreciation. The danger is entrenchment. Stasis. Lack of forward movement. Doug’s warning is that no matter how large your company, your leadership has to be from the front. So how to be a better leader?
Tear Down the Walls
A few years ago I pitched Mayor Bloomberg. This was when he was only Mike Bloomberg, CEO of Bloomberg Company, a billion dollar provider of financial products on Wall Street. I couldn’t help but notice the completely open office space – no private offices, dividing walls or doors in sight. Mike’s desk was on the same floor among hundreds of other employees. Joe Mansueto, founder and CEO of Morningstar, is the same way. He has a cubicle just like the rest (maybe a little bigger), but no door keeping people out.
If you value people, show it by making yourself available and laying out the welcome mat for your staff, clients, and stakeholders.
Get Out Among Your People
Even before the show Undercover Boss, there was John Edwardson, the CEO of United Airlines before he moved on to CDW. John was known to pop up at the baggage conveyor belt at United’s terminal in O’Hare airport, to help unload luggage along with the crew. I think John did this with a genuine desire to learn and understand what his employees were experiencing, and to show them a good measure of respect with his presence and attention.
Go See for Yourself
You want real boots on the ground? Check out Renee Haugerud, founder of a $600 million New York hedge fund, Galtere Ltd. Renee trades futures on commodities and currencies, but instead of staring at charts on a PC to make all her decisions she flies to her research farm in southern Minnesota to check the crops and soil for herself. Renee’s money making ability isn’t tied to being at a desk – she’s in a corn field.
We entrepreneurs assume we’ll never fall into the big company trap of losing our flexibility, our touch with customers, and our ability to out-innovate the big guys. But that means continually learning how to be a better leader. Doug Oberhelman’s promise to himself is that as long as he gets to remain CEO of Caterpillar, he will visit with clients and employees every single week. Make the same ambitious promise for yourself.
**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.