We enjoyed a visit this past Friday from a couple of senior leaders, as well as a few staffers, from our higher headquarters and the headquarters one up. A few weeks back, we had a similar visit, and our guests included THE senior leaders two levels up (my boss and his boss).
Regardless of the degree of formality with these visits, they are always to some degree, tests and inspections.
Sometimes you will get indications that the visit is formally or informally a test or inspection. Such indications could be found in the title of the visit (inspection, site assistance visit, program review). The itinerary or agenda may also provide clues. Further, who is on the visiting team (auditors, inspectors, quality control personnel) may indicate an inspection or test.
Other times, there will be no such indications that the visit includes an inspection. But the visit is still, in many ways, a test. Everyone on the visiting team is observing and forming an impression, and will likely share that impression of you and your organization with someone at some point in the future.
Think about it this way: if visitors from your higher headquarters come into your area and find discrepancies or problems that were not previously known at their level, do you not think that these details are going to be directly and immediately communicated to higher (perhaps with the connotation that they found something bad that you were trying to conceal)?
In any case, it pays to prepare for these visits as if they are a test (because, once again, they are).
Enough doom and gloom. Let's examine this from a positive perspective: while these visits can be stressful and challenging, they can also be exceptional opportunities to showcase superstar performers; communicate ideas, challenges, or issues; and obtain resources and support.
I have gotten to see several of these visits during my time in the Army, from the positions of visitor, host, and casual observer. When the visited organization's leaders prepare, the conditions are set to allow these visits to go as well as possible. When the visited organization's leaders don't prepare, it creates the potential for the visiting party to not feel welcomed. This is a bad way to start a visit from higher.
Further, during one of those times where I was the visitor, I received the treatment recommended in the list below, and I can't emphasize enough the value of a proper welcoming, forthcomingness with data and information, and just some basic hospitality and friendliness. It really made me feel special, and set the conditions for a positive, productive visit.
Steps for a Successful VIP Visit
In order to create the best possible chance for a successful visit, and to take full advantage of senior leaders' and staffers' full attention, I recommend that you the following nine steps.
1. Establish Contact. Start with 'We've received notice that you're inbound to visit, and I wanted to call and say welcome'. Ask if they require any assistance getting in. Confirm the timeline of their visit, as well as exactly who is coming. Is there anything in particular that they want to see or discuss (gather intel and prepare)?
Once the initial call is made from you to the senior visitor, have your subject matter experts contact their counterparts on the visiting team to begin dialogue (and the collection of intel).
2. The Basics of Preparation. As with everything else, preparation is critical to success. You're a fool if you don't prepare.
- Provide emphasis to your team about the visit.
- Assign troop to task (who on your team will serve as each visitor's counterpart).
- Be on top of your basic info (troops assigned, who's at work today, who isn't and why, today's activities, et cetera).
- Be current and well-versed in your big problems.
- Be well versed in the topics that your visitors are interested in.
- Gather intel on your visitors (advocates or belligerents, personality types, hot button topics, recent areas of emphasis).
3. Welcome Visitors at the Appropriate Place. Think about the unspoken dynamics of where to meet your visitors: 1) your boss - meet him/her at the front door; 2) advocates during a routine or good visit - get out from behind your desk and meet them in the front of your office, hallway, or foyer; 3) known belligerents - set the tone and turn it into a power play; make them come to your office and sit in the hot seat.
4. Shake Every Hand. As the visited organization's leader, you should shake every visitor's hand, introduce yourself, welcome them, and chat briefly. Make every visitor feel welcome and special. Don't forget about the importance of eye contact. Each of these visitors is a potential advocate for or belligerent against your organization; don't dis' them during your first interaction.
To say this another way: when advocates for your organization find problems, they 1) help fix them and 2) communicate them to higher in as favorable a way as possible for you; when belligerents find problems, they blow them out of proportion, and spin them in a way so as to make it look like they are a result of poor leadership by you. Make advocates during that first impression.
5. The Basics of Hospitality. The basics of hospitality go a long way to setting the tone for a positive visit: a hot cup of coffee, a brief guided tour of your area, and a brief current situation update. For longer visits, offer to help your visitors with lodging, ground transportation, et cetera.
Our organization is new, and has some of the most advanced equipment in the industry. For these reasons, we have and will continue to see a lot of visitors. Currently my team is in the process of developing a traveller's information packet that we can email to inbound visitors to assist with their trip. Information in this packet is going to include: the three best hotels in the vicinity of our location, the 10 best restaurants, a simple map of key locations (rental car locations, post office, churches), et cetera.
Also, for anything other than the briefest visits, give the senior leaders a nice, private place to work. I have the nicest office in our building, so when my boss (or his boss) comes to visit, I let them occupy my office (make sure your office is clean, organized, et cetera). In my mind, it is an important gesture of respect to give your boss the best seat in the house during his stay. Similarly, you want to make sure that senior staffers have a suitable place to work. Be sure to set them up with the basic necessities (copier code, internet connection, phones, stapler, tape, et cetera).
6. Be Honest. Be forthcoming with data and information. Make your subject matter experts available for the visitors to speak and visit with.
Also, in addition to showing them the good, show them the bad and the ugly. Not only may they be able to help, but they will also get the sense that you are being totally honest and forthcoming - an admirable and refreshing quality. If you tell senior leaders and staffers that it's all good, they'll think either 1) you're lying to them, or 2) that they are in an ambush (an old Army adage: if everything is going well, you're walking into an ambush). This may inspire distrust and further digging, or (worse) may cause you to be labeled as a shady character within senior staffer circles.
7. Tell Them How They Can Help. Have an answer prepared for when they ask how they can help. Your subject matter experts should have three to five issues per visiting staffer. For The Boss, I limit my answer to one reasonable issue that I do not have the ability to solve. Put these issues on a 3x5 index card that they can take with them.
As a sidebar, be sure to follow-up on this neat exchange between them and you. This is a good opportunity to challenge senior staffers, and see how effective and involved they can be. During these visits, some 'big hat, no cattle' senior staffers can do a little bit of grandstanding (especially when the senior bosses are present) by making big promises of decisive support and problem resolution. When they say things like 'We're going to get you some help you with this issue', or 'It's already fixed', or 'This is me, I got this one for you'; I smile and say, 'We'll see'.
8. Thank Them for Coming. More politeness and acknowledgement of their effort to come see you. Also, this brings a psychological sense of closure to the visit. Help them with their bags, walk them to their car or plane, and thank them for coming. Follow their visit with a thank you email.
9. Follow Up With Due Outs. These visits are not 'fire and forget': be sure to follow-up quickly with any information requests, actions, or suspenses that were generated from the visit. Most visited organizations say 'Yeah, I'll get that to you', then don't.
Also, over the following days or weeks, contact those visitors that promised help and hold their feet to the fire. There are ways to be smooth about this: call and say something like 'I wanted to see if you needed any more info to help us with that problem', or 'I wanted to take further action on this issue, but didn't want to interfere with any efforts that you had in play'.
If you're not doing what you are supposed to be doing as a leader, the above list isn't going to help you; they're going to come in and eat you alive. But, if you are taking care of your people and getting the mission done, the above list can turn what might otherwise be a routine visit into a memorable experience for your visitors, and may ultimately advance the causes of your people, the mission, and your organization.