Are people actually walking through your open door? As leaders we have a tendency to say our doors are always open—and our organizations may even go so far as to officially tout an open door policy that theoretically reaches all the way to the top. But how many frontline employees in your workplace feel truly empowered to approach leaders at various levels with challenges or input?
The truth is, team members have a lot of opinions. They’re the ones charged with actually implementing an organization’s strategies, keeping abreast of competitors, and producing, implementing or promoting products and services. They have distinct thoughts about the culture of the workplace and how they and their peers feel about showing up to work each day. They know how customers feel about their company and they can tell you where the gaps in service lie. Team members can pinpoint the strengths of the organization and are no strangers to the not-so-pretty aspects that may be negatively impacting productivity or even losing clients.
When an organization describes itself as having an open door policy, it’s issuing a blanket statement about its culture that may—or more often may not—reflect the reality of how team dynamics and sharing of information actually functions. Leaders who say their offices are always open are really only meeting their team members a fraction of the way, and they are likely missing out on some enormously valuable input and innovative ideas.
At Milestone Leadership, we know leaders worth following take a proactive approach. Here are three ways to actually make good on an open door assertion and start hearing more from your team:
- Walk straight through your own door, out of your office and meet your team members where they are. Make a commitment to regularly approach employees about what they’re experiencing, where they’re struggling and what they’re proud of. Initial conversations may not result in people feeling comfortable with sharing much information, but with consistency and a clearly demonstrated open mind that builds trust, feedback and ideas will start to flow both ways. Come prepared with questions that help to get people talking, and ask about specific topics you’re challenged by.
- Don’t assume the information actually shared with you paints the entire picture. Human nature dictates that people tend to be more vocal with complaints or problems—a good example is online reviews where people feel the need to get negative experiences off of their chests, but may never take the time to leave praise or offer constructive suggestions. Similarly, leaders may hear about what people are upset about but they don’t have employees coming to them with fresh ideas or possible innovations. By reinforcing a culture of ongoing communication that encourages sharing all types of information, the likelihood of getting a broader view increases exponentially.
- Think and interact with strategy in mind. As a leader, you have responsibility for the definition, communication and execution of your organization’s strategy. Many employees have roles that are more narrowly defined and they don’t necessarily think about big-picture views or overarching objectives every day. When talking with team members, reinforce the company’s strategy and how their work supports that. As they better see where their work fits into the grand scheme of things, they will become more proactive about suggesting ways to improve processes or even positively disrupt status quo.
Make sure your door really IS open—and make the sure the path goes both ways!
Living Your Values,
Tone at the Top,
High Performing Teams,
Values & Ethics,
Leader Worth Following,
If you were to find yourself feeling a bit reflective about your career and paused to consider what had the greatest impact on your successes along the way, it’s likely some key people would come to mind. The relationships you had with these individuals may have varied in formality, but you could likely describe very specific ways they affected your development professionally, personally or both. These people were your mentors, regardless of whether it was intentional and formalized or not; their influence helped bring you clarity, inspiration, confidence and knowledge.
As you envision these people, did you ever stop to consider that their acts of providing guidance actually helped them grow along with you? Here are three ways you can improve your own leadership capacity by actively giving the benefit of your experience to someone else:
- Serving as an effective mentor means you’re making a commitment to offer honest feedback and constructive criticism. Providing this in a way that actually builds a mentee’s capacity requires diplomacy and a solid understanding of what the mentee truly needs—which comes only through observation and active listening. Leaders aren’t necessarily born with this skill set, but making a conscious effort to really support another person’s growth by taking the time to learn about them and offer meaningful guidance can have the added benefit of honing the mentor’s own listening and communication skills. The self-awareness that results from understanding the impact of your words on another person is valuable in literally every relationship you have, personally and professionally.
- Necessary components of any mentor-mentee relationship are honesty and trust. These elements are also absolutely critical to high performing teams—and must be continuously cultivated and nurtured by leaders. Not everyone arrives at a point of open honesty and a place of trust in the same way or at the same time, but serving as a mentor can help leaders who struggle with this by allowing them to let down some of their barriers to expose their own vulnerabilities. Many of the best life and work lessons are learned through mistakes and missteps, and when you can share your own fallibilities with honesty and humility, you inspire the kind of trust that allows others to feel they can be authentic with you.
- Offering guidance to another person based upon your own experience requires self-reflection. Leaders frequently find themselves pressing ever-forward without pausing to think subjectively about their own personal and career paths—where they went right or how they could have done things better for themselves or for others. As a mentor, imparting what you’ve learned through your own experiences allows you the opportunity to revisit your own past, an important step to securing a better future. Sharing your path with another person can actually reveal things you might not have otherwise considered about yourself, and offer you the chance to improve or even altogether change your future course.
At Milestone Leadership, we believe leaders worth following understand the impact of sharing their own past experiences with transparency and intention. By revealing ourselves to others, we come to understand our own behaviors and contributions in ways that help us to be stronger future leaders.
Kelly Hale Syer
High Performing Teams,
Values & Ethics,
Leader Worth Following,