Ask people about the leaders they most admire, and they’re likely to describe someone who’s not only smart and strategic, but also approachable and accessible.
Those respected leaders make that aura of warmth and welcome look easy, but we know the real story. It’s hard work. And it isn’t getting easier. Tackling business, technology, regulatory and human resource challenges can easily fill any executive’s calendar — and get in the way of personal connections with staff.
How about you? If you’re a leader determined to keep that personal touch, good for you. Employee engagement is essential to success and makes for healthier, happier workplaces.
So, whether this is something you’re already doing — or something you aspire to — the question is: How can you be an accessible, approachable leader without overextending yourself? The answer is that it takes mastery of both your schedule and your communication style. Following are keys to doing it without exhausting yourself.
Assess your accessibility
Being an accessible leader refers to people’s ability to get time with you without feeling they’re annoying or unwelcome. To test how that’s working right now — or could improve — ask yourself the following questions.
Do you have a scheduling strategy? If you have an administrative assistant, have you helped that person know when and why to add a visitor, meeting or event to your calendar while keeping some space free for serendipitous visitors or even just time to think and plan?
Does your calendar include office hours? This signifies a set time when people can see you for any reason, not just urgent business. It tells your team they matter and enables you to plan the rest of your obligations around that protected time. A wise colleague of mine always taught that “scheduled time drives out unscheduled time.” If you commit something to your calendar, it’s a plan — not just a wish.
Do you have a deputy or trusted staffer who can stand in when you’re unavailable? Or does your work just pile up while you’re in meetings or (hallelujah!) taking time off? If you don’t delegate, you’re always playing catch-up. That leaves little time for personal connections with staff.
Do you schedule check-in time with your remote staff? This lets them know they’re on your radar. Distance creates disconnection — if you let it.
Do you make time to stroll around the workplace so people can see you and chat? Even if you tell staff you have an “open door” policy, many people think they need an invitation or a big problem before they cross your threshold. When you walk — and work — the room, people have guaranteed access to you. (Tip for introverted leaders: “Management by walking around” can drain your energy. But if you plan for it and spend a little quiet time afterward, your batteries will stay charged.)
Where do you eat lunch? If there’s a communal space, do you join folks there? Do you regularly invite staff to join you for meals, coffee or even a walk outside?
Demonstrate that you’re approachable
What about approachability? It doesn’t pay to dine in the lunchroom if people aren’t comfortable walking over to greet or join you. Here are seven tips for being more approachable.
- Don’t be all business. If your communication begins and ends with the work at hand — no small talk, no personal focus, no humor — you won’t be known as approachable.
- Be an initiator, not just a responder. If you’re walking down the hall, be the first to say hello. In gatherings, introduce yourself and show genuine interest. Ask questions. Listen. It makes people feel they’re important to you.
- Do your homework. Approachable leaders learn the names of as many colleagues as possible. Also knowing the names of their family members or beloved pets shows you see staff as people, not just producers.
- Be human. Your life doesn’t have to be an open book, but you can share some personal insights. When people know your hobbies, music preferences, favorite foods — even your pet peeves (shared with a smile and a story) — they can more easily find common ground with you.
- Know your impact. The first thing you say when someone approaches you is a tell about your approachability. Is it a sharp “Yes? What is it?” or “What do you want?” Or is it eye contact, a smile and “How can I help you?” or “What’s on your mind?” When someone asks you to review their work, do you dive right in like an inspector, or do you have a quick warmup exchange? (I learned that asking people “What do you love about this?” before reviewing something sets a truly positive tone, and surprisingly, it led many on my team to tell me not only what they thought was good but also what they worried might be lacking. It made the review process much easier — and more pleasant.)
- Give people your full attention. Make eye contact. Lean in. Repeat what you heard to prove you’re really hearing them. Get out from behind your desk and sit with them. Position your office clock so you can see it without disengaging from a visitor. Never underestimate the powerful message it sends when you tell a colleague who’s in the room when your phone rings: “That’s okay, I’ll let it go to voicemail. I want to keep hearing from you.”
- Learn to say “no” in ways that don’t scare people away. On a busy day, the answer to “Got a minute?” shouldn’t be a wave-off with “Sorry, I’m slammed” or “Catch me later.” Try this instead: “I have a minute, but you deserve more. How about 2:30 this afternoon when I have more space on my schedule?” Offering a specific time demonstrates your sincerity and the individual’s importance to you.
Protect yourself against overload and exhaustion
Don’t assume you must be the first on the scene each day and the last to leave. Staff take their cues from you. When you take vacation, leave early for your child’s soccer game or stay home when you’re sick rather than dragging yourself into the office, you set the tone for everyone. You’re also taking good care of yourself.
And that’s important. Every workplace deserves leaders who are smart and strategic, approachable and accessible — and healthy.