You may not run a retail giant like Wal-Mart, but you can still follow Sam Walton's lead in managing people.
Lou Pritchett, a Procter & Gamble executive, worked closely with Sam Walton from 1987 to 1992. As Pritchett writes in his book, Stop Paddling and Start Rocking the Boat, he toured stores in three states with Walton during one especially memorable business trip.
After they returned to the office, Walton spent an hour quizzing Pritchett about his observations. Walton, then in his early 70s, took copious notes and asked lots of follow-up questions to dig for details.
Pritchett noticed that three of the Wal-Marts had run out of the same item and mentioned it in passing. Walton, who preached to store managers the need to restock shelves promptly, sought more information from Pritchett and proceeded to investigate the situation. To manage like Walton:
Pose questions--and shut up. After you state your question, stay silent and maintain eye contact so that you signal your interest to hear more. Don't jump in and talk after an employee utters one or two sentences. Let them speak freely and share their impressions. Give them the gift of time and they'll open up to you.
Take notes. This shows you want to retain what you hear. Plus, it makes employees feel important. They'll also realize that you may hold them accountable for what they say, so they'll be less apt to misspeak or make unfounded or careless comments.
Dig for gold nuggets. Rather than ask a pre-set series of questions, go with the flow of the conversation. If an employee makes an intriguing comment, probe to learn more. Drill down to the core details. Keep an open mind. If you hear something that you don't want to hear, thirst for more information. Don't scold or intimidate the messenger.