By Anthony T Eaton
The adage, “I have an open door policy” is a cliché! If you are a leader, you should be challenging yourself on this regularly. It is not a matter of whether you think you have an open door policy; it is a matter of whether your employees believe you do.
Before you were in a leadership position did your boss have an open door policy? Was/is their door open more than closed? Did/does an open door feel like an invitation or an invisible barrier? If you went to them at any time with something important would they welcome you?
If you are in a leadership position take a moment and ask yourself; do you, welcome people, in, make time for them? Are you accessible or do you sit behind a closed door? Do those you lead feel like they approach you anytime without fear of being rebuffed? How do you know; have you asked them?
I know for sure that some leaders reading this right now are saying there is no way they can have a “real” open door; they would never get anything done. I would always be interrupted by things that don’t matter. I don’t have time for that. And to this, I say, hogwash! If in fact, that is the case then you are not correctly setting expectations or managing, you are making excuses, and you don’t have time not to have an open door.
Strong leaders are accessible whenever those they lead need them, and if it is a “social” call, they manage it as if it is no less critical than an impending disaster.
The best leaders I have had let me do what they hired me for and knew that when I called them or came to their office, it was because I needed them and they were always available. In contrast, the not so great leaders I have had not only sat behind their closed office door but also avoided any direct contact were unresponsive to emails, voicemails and left me feeling as if I was on an island to fend for myself.
So how do they/I do it? Here are some tips.
• Set Expectations
Don’t assume that people know what it means to have an open door. I rarely close my door, but when I do my direct reports know that I am either on a conference call or working on something that requires my undivided attention. Even then, if it is urgent, they know they can interrupt.
When my door is open, they are free to approach for business or social interactions, and if I cannot accommodate them I ask them if it can wait, but most of the time I stop what I am doing to give them the attention they need. I do this because it makes them feel valuable and in return, they are also more responsive to me and engaged.
• Make yourself seen
When is the last time you walked through your department and said hello to everyone, even those that don’t report to you? When is the last time your leader did this?
Although I am in before some of my employees, I always say good morning, even to those who work around us. For those who come in later, when I step out of my office for any reason and pass by them I do the same. It is a simple acknowledgment of their presence and helps set the tone for the day. In contrast, I have had and know of leaders that will go out of their way to get to their office unseen to avoid any interaction with their employees or others, and this sends an even stronger message to employees about their value.
• Be available
As I stated above, I make myself accessible, but I also let those around me know that they can reach out at any time, for any reason, day or night. Whenever needed they can come to my office, email me, call me, text me, whatever they need to do to get me if they need me. In return, they do the same for me.
• Be responsive
To be responsive, you have to be actively engaged. Just because you are physically there, have email, voicemail or text it doesn’t mean you are present. Even if you cannot give a specific answer, talk at that moment or address the need, an acknowledgment of some kind is a response.
How often have you wondered if someone got your text, email or voicemail? Or worse yet, they blew you off in person? Sometimes I am busy, I can’t answer without giving it thought or consulting with others, but I always try my best to provide some acknowledgment.
• Manage behaviors
You may set expectations, make yourself seen, be available and be responsive but still encounter the person that feels everything is urgent, an emergency or just wants to be social at all the wrong times. Hopefully, it is rare, but in these cases, you must be able to manage behaviors and hold people accountable for your expectations.
I model the behaviors I expect; I don’t enter an office or cubicle without being acknowledged and invited even when the door is open, and I ask the same from others. When someone approaches and I am busy I pause to ask them if it can wait, can they come back or motion them to hold on. I never ignore them.
Even as I write this, I know that sometimes I miss the mark, but I recognize when I do, make corrections and apologies when it is needed. It is not always easy, but as a leader, it is essential that current leaders model the correct behaviors so that those who will rise to be future leaders know how to do it, and those who don’t feel the same value as those who will and already are.