Have Desk, Will Travel

Real leaders go where the action is.

What if the boss didn't always sit in the corner office, or on the top floor, or closest to the executive washroom? What if the boss made his office wherever the company's biggest problem was?

Michael Chasen, the 34-year-old CEO of education software provider Blackboard, has a desk and chair on the fifth floor of the company's Washington, DC, headquarters. But in early 2004, he realized Blackboard was in trouble: The new version of its Academic Suite of products had bugs, and its development and support teams weren't coping with a growing customer base. Plus, Blackboard's head of product development had just resigned.

Rather than delegating responsibility, Chasen literally moved his computer, a self-assembled Staples desk, and his "rickety chair" to the seventh floor, home to the troubled development staff. For the next four months, he worked directly with developers — even as he continued to oversee hiring and firing across the company.

"As a CEO, you need to know the entire organization and be able to identify where the problem areas are," says Chasen. To fix the problem, Chasen decided to release quarterly product updates instead of big releases every two years, enabling his development team to fix bugs in a shorter time. In addition, every customer-support representative was assigned a fixed set of clients to foster an energetic working relationship.

For now, Chasen is back in his fifth-floor digs — but that could change when the next fire starts up. He thinks his approach motivates managers and creates a sense of urgency among employees. "My hands-on style sets a precedent across the company," he says. "Managers don't just delegate. They do."

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