Key Points:

Ed Sims, Air New Zealand's international group manager, will never forget being told by a rather direct German tourist that he was not doing a very good job. Sims freely admitted he was still learning. The customer is always right, after all, and Sims had just dropped a bread roll on the floor. He was working at the time as "trainee" cabin crew.

This humbling experience is just one of the indignities Air New Zealand top management have to deal with when out "on the shop floor" - a policy that means the executive team, including chief executive Rob Fyfe and non-executives like Ken Douglas, regularly spend a day in a different part of the business. Some experiences are more enjoyable than others.

Working in the call centre is always educational. Sims was in there answering calls on a foggy morning recently, and discovered that people seemed to expect Air New Zealand to alter the weather.

When someone in the call centre claims that customers have unreal expectations, management can let it roll over them, says Sims. But when you've been in the call centre yourself, it's different. He still can't believe that organisations will get a PA to ring up and say: "Do you realise how important my boss is?" when weather conditions are causing flight delays.

The "getting your hands dirty" initiative reminds Sims of the British TV programme Back to the Floor, which has taken more than 50 CEOs back down the ladder, with some interesting results. Tom Riall, who previously served as managing director of waste-disposal company Onyx UK, spent a week collecting garbage and saw the company's problems with his own eyes. "You can be briefed about an issue by your managers for years," he says. "But until you experience it for yourself, you don't really understand it. I found that there were constant mistakes with our overtime payments and that our fleet of vehicles was unreliable."

Sims has been inspired by Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur. Once a month, AirAsia's pilots have to cook breakfast for their engineers. It's to say thanks and Sims reckons it's a good reminder to the pilots about how much they depend on their engineering crew.

Inspired by this, he and his team recently held a huge sausage sizzle for front and back staff at Auckland Airport. He was there for three hours, and staff loved it.

The "day out" policy is a reciprocal process, and staff also shadow members of the executive team for a day. They come with them to everything, even to highly confidential meetings where the company's budget is under discussion, or to performance reviews.

"People who come from functional roles are surprised about the number of hats I wear," he says.

"I think it's a complete surprise at how much detail we carry around in our heads. Names of cabin crew and pilots. In my own area of 3500 staff, over the last three or four years I would have met 90 per cent of these people."

Spending time close to the business makes you more tolerant of the dependency on each other, he says.

"It's incredibly important for someone in my position to relay and understand. I probably come away from those days with more notes than from a management meeting."

He stresses the policy was not intended to undermine middle management.

"What we do is take an awful lot of responses from people in front-line positions." If he comes across a serious problem he consults with middle management to find out if it is a systemic issue.

Icehouse's CEO Andy Hamilton says good managers are the ones who walk the floor. And good leaders can relate to all levels of the organisation, he says.

For some entrepreneurs whose companies get larger and larger, losing touch with minute details of the firm can be a real wrench.

"That's part of their growth transition. When you start up, you tend to know everything, but when it starts growing, it becomes less. Then when you put systems in place to cope with the growth, you end up knowing more because you have these systems. The leader then has the opportunity to be the people coach."

The Bank of New Zealand runs a similar scheme to Air New Zealand. On the day I call her, Bridget O'Shannessey, the bank's general manager of people and corporate relations, is working as branch manager in Cambridge. The executive team all regularly work in a job for a day.

O'Shannessey says it helps her appreciate better how her role impacts on different areas.

"I have got a list of things today where I know I can effect change," she says. "It's about building relationships and breaking down hierarchies. It's about making the senior people real. You have a laugh, you meet wonderful staff, and it's about understanding their frustrations."

She sees her role as making sure the BNZ is a better employer, and a great place to work.

Her forays out into the field have led to a number of initiatives, from changing the handling of cheque cash procedures to something minor but practical in the wardrobe function area.

Staff find it gratifying that change is possible. O'Shannessey finds that once people have met her and have her mobile phone number, they text her suggestions, which would never have happened if she'd stayed at head office.

"It's about a cultural shift in the organisation. It's about getting their engagement that we are all in this together.

"You can't feel like that if there is a hierarchy," she says.