Managers are accessible, Leaders are approachable.
Often leaders believe they are the embodiment of an ‘open-door’ policy. They communicate that 'staff can always check in with me'. Unfortunately, the fact that you may state this doesn't necessarily translate to a fact of knowledge for your teams. There is a big gap between leaders who say they are accessible and those who are actually approachable.
Whether you are approachable or even accessible has nothing to do with where you are located; whether you are in an office, behind a closed door or in an open shared working space. What determines whether you are truly approachable is;
an agreed understanding of why, when and how people can approach you
how you respond when people do approach you.
Ironically I’ve met leaders who work in open spaces and say their staff never approach them, and leaders who work in offices where staff always feel they can approach them. The key difference between the two is the attitude of the leader towards their staff. The first leader who believes they are accessible has an attitude that all their staff should already know the answer and shouldn’t ever have to both them…”can’t they do the job I hired them to do?” The second leader has an attitude that all their staff contribute to better outcomes and understand the parameters of engagement… I know you can do your job and “approach me when it’s appropriate to get support, escalate a concern, engage a decision or when you need an advocate.”
The first has multiple people on their teams, responsible for salaries, hiring, firing, delivering outcomes, budgets and rolling out company changes - a highly responsible and - for them - stressful job. The second has multiple people on their teams, responsible for salaries, hiring, firing, delivering outcomes, budgets and rolling out company changes - a highly responsible job in stressful situations. Unlike the first leader, the second leader is also accountable for supporting Australians in life & death situations, emergency aid, natural disaster and diplomacy. Both are high pressured roles, both have publicity pressures, both have teams and both have financial accountability.
So what's the difference between the two? Does real life & death situations make leaders more approachable? Why do some leaders with less life & death stress become so inaccessible?
Simply because a manager says they are the accessible, doesn’t make them so. What makes the first manager inaccessible is the way they respond to any approaches. They snap down, have grumpy moods and inconsistent responses on any given day. In simple terms, they are not leading the team member to better outcomes; they lead them to a poor outcome - they make team members feel unwelcome and reticent to approach them – and when they are approached, they make the team member feel stupid, even though they clearly aren’t. In effect, this type of manager (not leader) is training their people to not approach them. What this manager doesn’t realise is that their chaotic behaviour is triggering the most basic of human learning instinct - when someone hurts you - avoid them. As kids we burn our fingers on the stove, we learn straight away; hot stuff = hurt fingers. At work we learn hot tempered boss = hurt job outcomes.
You may believe you are accessible, but are you actually approachable?
- why people need to approach you?
- what do you want people to check in with you first?
- how do people know when you are busy and when you are available?
The second person in this story just happens to be my brother who is the Second Secretary and Consul at the Australian Embassy in Fiji. He is responsible for providing Consular, Passport and Notarial services to Australians in Fiji and contributing to the corporate enabling services of ICT, Finance, HR, security, property and communications. He directly manages seven locally engaged staff and along with his corporate colleagues, the Counsellor and Consul General and First Secretary Corporate, they keep a mission of 76 locally engaged staff and 25 Australian based staff, safe and operating efficiently and effectively. He's method for ensuring he's approachable is quite simple. The team all have an agreed understanding of when and why to huddle as a team or to check in with their manager.
My favourite aspect of their team agreement is the two images on Sean’s office door. It’s clear, simple and reinforces their team agreement about appropriate interaction as it’s appropriately needed.
Whatever your style is, take the time out to consider whether you are actually an approachable leader or merely physically accessible?