How to Be An Approachable Leader
The consummate leader is strong, stalwart, unbending, needs no help, and [OK insert sound of a needle scratching across a record here]. The leader above is a dinosaur if indeed such a leader ever did exist. A true leader is the opposite.
A popular leadership training exercise is to have participants list the qualities of their favorite leader or boss and the qualities of their worst. This exercise is revealing to say the least. Today, leaders are more enlightened. Not! Recently, I had a coaching client whose manager kept a jar on his desk with a phrase printed on it. The phrase read, “Employee Ashes.” While many people might brush this off or even find it humorous, the sight of this jar with its message was having an adverse effect on my client. In addition, the manager had a management style befitting the phrase on his beloved jar. In fact, this jar and her boss’ management style evoked such feelings in my client that she and I were working to find her a new job as quickly as possible.
Regardless of how people might react, where was HR? Where was this manager’s boss? What was the reasoning for allowing this manager to have something so offensive on his desk? Eventually, the manager did move on and the morale in the department soared. My client decided to stay as her new boss was indeed more enlightened.
Recently an executive client was lamenting the fact that no one came to her office to ask her advice. Here is where the management technique of MBWA (management by walking around) becomes an effective tool. You will no doubt remember that Sam Walton, who started Sam’s Club and Walmart, is famous for using this management technique. While you may not picture Sam Walton as the consummate leader. But MBWA can change the dynamics of interaction with your team and Sam Walton built an empire on being approachable.
Approachable leaders don’t stay in their ivory towers perched on their pedestals. Moreover, for this very reason, leaders who need to know everything are often the last to know anything. The MBWA management technique changes this because when you place yourself in someone else’s field of expertise, you are forcing yourself to ask questions. Two ways to avoid becoming a stagnant leader are being humble and learning. Asking questions helps with both these endeavors. After breaking the ice with small talk, a couple of questions exploit both these leadership elements. Examples are: “Hey I’ve been wondering about…”; “Maybe you could help me understand…”; “I’d like to hear your opinion about…”; “What would you say to the idea of…”.
Let’s Get Physical
Another element for being approachable is your physical appearance or demeanor. In American society we are known for our pursuit of youth and beauty. This is not the physical appearance we are discussing here. Be aware of how you appear to your colleagues and team members. One client said that people were always telling her that she was “cool and distant.” She wasn’t buying it. Even after administering some assessments to her stating this fact more than three times, she still was in denial. Finally, during one session, I helped her understand that she does indeed come across that way and why she doesn’t need to appear that way, she began to relax. For her, carrying that demeaner around is a defense mechanism. Going around with a scowl on your face presents the same dynamics – you’re unapproachable and it is a defense mechanism. You may be a fine individual with a good sense of humor, but no one can discern that behind a scowl – nor will they try. Be aware. Ask people you trust how you come across to others.
Always appearing to be in a hurry has the same effect. People need to see you take time for them. Being in such a hurry may mean that you are busy being busy, you are too busy and need additional help, or you are setting up a barrier to be unapproachable. Slow down, five minutes of conversation can reap rewards well beyond the time it takes to show someone you are a caring leader. Personable and professional can coexist even in the same person.
Another physical barrier is your phone. First, it covers your face so people may not even know it’s you coming toward them. Being on the phone is distracting for you. You are unable to see your own people. You may think that having a phone stuck in your ear makes you look important. Just being human makes you important. Being a leader affords you the opportunity to provide value to your company and others. The world is not going to tumble off its axis if you miss another inane message from your colleague informing you, “Yes, the new widgets are cute.”
During times of upheaval, it is even more important to be approachable. During a merger, trust can plummet to an all-time low and affect your bottom line. Leaders who hide from answering questions during such times only help fuel the rumor mill. Rumors are almost always worse than reality. Even if you don’t have all the answers, the fact that you are willing to discuss a topic of concern or even offer the comfort that you will be addressing this concern the next meeting wins trust and increases your approachability quotient. This is being open and trustworthy; and being visible and willing to answer questions can keep you, your team, and the company on a more even keel during a crisis or important change initiative.
It doesn’t always take great action to be an approachable leader. It’s often just everyday actions and common-sense considerations that meet the criteria. While you may not feel or think of yourself as the consummate leader with these seemingly small actions, others will trust you, show you respect, and become far more engaging in others, their tasks, and see you in the light of a consummate leader just for being approachable.
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