Candid advice to leaders: Be approachable

Many leaders today are lone rangers because they are not approachable. They move around as tyrants and they are wondering why they aren’t having followers. This kind of leaders do not smile, because they do not know the inherent power of a simple smile as said by Mother Teresa, “We shall know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

The burning issue I am addressing here reminds me of a leader who was unapproachable: Stanley Gertz likes to arrive early to his office. He has a small coffee maker—a gift from his wife—that his secretary sets up for him at the end of every working day. All Stanley has to do in the morning is press the button and the machine grinds fresh beans and then brews his coffee while he checks his emails.

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After about an hour, Stanley hears his workforce of about 15 people get to their desks. His door is closed but he can watch them from the webcams he installed himself one Sunday afternoon years before. He likes the feeling of seeing but not being seen and he’s sure that no one knows about the cams. He then works steadily until 10:30, when he opens his door and walks around the office, saying good morning and smiling at each member of staff individually. Stanley has been on a leadership course and learned that this is something people want, although he doesn’t really understand why. If he never saw his own boss again, it would still be too soon.

Just thinking of the weekly managers’ meeting makes him frown. But that ordeal is set in stone, and so of course he goes. Stanley has to work, although he’s just past retirement age. There are still very big bills from his wife’s cancer treatment and if he can stay in work for another two years, they will be out of debt. So he grins—well, not quite—and bears it.

Marie Lamb looks up from her desk as Stanley approaches. He’s such a good person and she wishes that he knew that everyone laughs at him—even his own boss. Every day he has the same routine. He always remembers to ask about her mother—who has recently been seriously ill. Marie does not drive and so Stanley took them to the hospital every single week.

Marie takes the meeting’s minutes for the executive committee and so she knows that Stanley is about to be let go. He has more than 30years of service, but they plan to dump him suddenly without any warning. They call it shock tactics. Marie would like to warn him to contact an employment lawyer, but he is so unapproachable that she wouldn’t know how to begin the conversation.

How do you know whether you are approachable or not as a leader? Ask yourself these questions: Has anyone at work offered you a suggestion without being invited? Have you asked any colleague for their ideas? Has everyone you have approached reacted as if your approach is normal? You be the judge whether you are approachable or not. If you are not approachable, you are missing out on a lot of things without knowing.

Approachable leaders have to want to be interested in how others are doing. It’s their job to know when support is needed or whether questions and problems have arisen. The way they find out is by asking and then listening to the answers. Sincerity can and should be telegraphed with tone of voice and a friendly manner because this shows genuine interest more than the content of any questions asked.

An abrupt ‘You all right?’ amongst people who know one another well can be a warm greeting on the condition that, that is their normal speaking style. Leaders or anyone newly joining a work group needs to learn what’s normal and what being approachable means to that group. Stanley never learned what his colleagues think is normal. He watches them secretly through a webcam, but doesn’t hear how they speak to one another. The result is that he does not know how to fit in and be approachable.

Reactions to being left out of the loop can include hurt feelings, indifference, anger, annoyance, frustration or amusement. However, the crucial reaction should be concerned at the possibility of being an unapproachable person. Lack of inclusion in news, plans and general opinions means—that there isn’t finger on work life’s pulse. Everyone needs this to some degree, but leaders must have it always.

It’s how you learn that an important colleague is unhappy enough to leave. If you are an approachable person, he or she tells you informally, maybe over coffee, and explains what’s going wrong or is frustrating. You in turn listen quietly without urging one action over another. You may have several conversations. If the colleague’s concerns are serious, you can start addressing them based on the talks you are having. If they are temporary, just talking through the frustrations may help resolve them.

One way in which you can show you are approachable is by sharing information about yourself. Every leader should have a hobby to talk about at work. It breaks the ice and is just personal enough to show what kind of person you are. For example, if Stanley Gertz kept tropical fish, he could talk about this. Eventually, his kind personality would be revealed through stories about his fish.

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