Sunday, May 4, 2008

Our Open Doors

Every leader I know professes to have an open door policy. But often I find that this door is (1) open for some, not for all; or (2) open just a slight crack and almost impossible to get through; or (3) open to all -- to the point where no work can get done. So can we take a minute to look at what it means to have an open door policy? How open should our doors be?

First of all, should you have an open door? Of course. If you embrace the leadership philosophy that says people don't work for us...we work for them, then we need to make time for others. Subordinates, customers, suppliers, contractors, (or Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer for those of us in the public sector to whom we are also accountable) -- all should have some reasonable expectation for access. People whom we serve should be comfortable in the knowledge that the door is open enough to bring issues, concerns, new ideas, or just to say hello -- directly to us.

If you have a gate keeper (your "Directors of First Impressions"), make sure they understand this. In many cases, they will keep people away, believing they are doing their duty to protect you and your schedule. But these well-intentioned people (secretaries, receptionists, etc.) must understand your intent for transparency and availability: The door is open. Be mindful of our schedule and priorities. Let possible visitors know of how much (or how little) time they might have because of other demands before they walk through the door. Embrace visitors and let them know how excited we will be to meet with them (if only in the lobby for a handshake). We work for them...not the other way around.

I believe the open door applies to email and the phone. I have 700 employees. I let them know that they can contact me at any time and by any means. I promise them that I will answer. Now, like many of you, I get too many emails. But I will answer every one of them. Maybe not right away, but relatively soon. It may be a simple, "OK...thanks! What a wonderful suggestion. Let me pass that one to XX department and see what they think. Keep thinking of ways like this to make us better." Or something like that. But I will answer! The door is open.

Here are some critical issues regarding our open doors:

-- Don't let your open door replace the chain of command. If someone brings a problem to you that clearly must be solved by someone below you, let them know that this is where this issue should be addressed. Do it respectfully and without closing the door. When we put ourselves in the position of solving every problem for everyone, we dis-empower our subordinate leaders. And when we start solving every little problem for every person, we will never get anything else done. I tell people up front that they should use my open door for problems that the chain of command has not been able to solve or problems that are organizational and will require my involvement. Problems within their own unit should be dealt with at the unit-level!

-- Don't lose momentum. Our open door cannot be an excuse for failing to address top priorities. We have jobs to do, businesses to run, missions to accomplish. Visitors and those who wish to use the open door must understand that we may have to get back to them. Just make sure that you do!

-- Don't play favorites. The door must be open to all. People talk. They notice who we make time for and those for whom we are always too busy. Keep the playing field level.

Finally, here is the insider secret on open door policies. Leaders who are out and about, who have a regular presence in the field, on the warehouse floor, or out in the stores, who practice "leadership by walking around," don't have open door issues. They are always accessible. They are listening to others and learning of their issues and ideas on a regular basis. They are meeting people where they are instead of forcing people to come to them. These leaders have no doors!

Whatever your open door policy, make sure you share it with others. Put it in an email or on a policy letter and post it for all to see. Bring in your gatekeeper(s) and ensure they share your vision for embracing those for whom you work. Discuss it with your subordinate leaders and encourage them to do the same. Then open your door...and keep it open.

Well friends...let me know what you think. My door is open! That's Leader Business.


James T. Parsons said...

Hey Tom,

I think the post is important, and I assume your military training and experience show why this is important. If you don't know what the field recon is in situations, the decision makers are operating in a potential combat zone blind. The importance of open door/communication is that the information needed in command decision be allowed to get to the top. While the military example shows the urgency, I think in even non-military situations it can impact legal liability, good will in business relationships, or just practical efficiency.

Good post as usual.

Tom Magness said...

Great thoughts, James. The real challenge for leaders is finding an appropriate balance. How much information / problems / issues come to the top versus how many are addressed at a lower, more appropriate level. We do not want to stifle our subordinate leaders but...we want employees to be comfortable sharing information with us. Once we find the "sweet spot" -- we are doing the leader's business! Hooah! TM