“Open Door” Is Not a Policy!
To be clear, open-door leadership is not about having an open-door policy. Such policies are just more management hokum. One of the surest signs of a rookie leader is the claim, “I have an open-door policy, and my door is always open so my employees can get to me.” Allowing yourself to be continuously interrupted is a recipe for lousy leadership. If your door is always open, how on earth can you get any work done on behalf of the people who are interrupting
you? Open-door leadership is not about having a policy of keeping your door open to others. It's about taking actions to open doors for others. It is about so much more than giving people unfettered access to you.
I Knew an Open-Door Leader
After having spoken with thousands of executives over the course of two decades, I am convinced that career advancement is nearly always a function of the presence, influence, and support of a dedicated open-door leader. They always seem to appear when we need them, nudging us along, encouraging our growth, and helping us see and move toward our potential.
Let me share a very personal story about one such leader's profound impact on my life and career. The story helps illustrates the concept of open-door leadership and introduces the four skills that open-door leaders possess.
I used to drink too much. Way too much. I drank to the point where my drinking started interfering with my life and relationships. Eventually I entered a recovery program and got help. Life got better.
Three years after getting sober and attending lots of support group meetings, I decided to reveal to my boss, Hines Brannan, a partner at Accenture, that I was in recovery. After working for him for three years, I wanted him to know me beyond the person he knew me to be at work. Keep in mind that Accenture is not some young, urban start-up company with a foosball table in the break room. It is one of the world's largest management and technology consulting fi ms. The culture is, at once, professional, disciplined, ambitious, and . . . stiff. While I didn't expect my boss to pat me on my shoulder and say, “Good for you. You're a drunk!” I expected more of a reaction than I got. After I told him that I was in recovery, Hines looked at me quizzically, and muttered, “I see.” Then he made some small-talk comments and hurried on to another meeting.
I regretted having told him and wondered whether I had just damaged my career.
Then, about two weeks later, Hines called me into his office and said, “I've been thinking about what you told me a few weeks ago. What I didn't tell you then is that I am the chairman of the board of directors of a nonprofit agency called the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. It's based here in Atlanta. Accenture recently agreed to do a pro bono research project, and we're going to be providing them with a small team to do the research. I'd like for you to lead the project. Remember, I'm the board chair, so I'm going to be here with you every step of the way.”
My boss had created an opportunity for me to align my career goals and my personal interests with Accenture's goals in serving the client. It was the first time as a new manager that I got to lead my own project team. Given my personal experience with substance abuse, you can imagine how much passion I had for the work. With that passion, and the support of my boss, I did a great job. Because I did a great job, new doors opened and I got other meaningful projects.
There are a number of factors at play in this story. First, to open a door for me, Hines had to have a fuller knowledge of my background than just my current skills. He had to know what I wanted to achieve with my career and the contribution I was hoping to make. He also had to know something about my outside-of-work identity. Second, he had to make the connection between an opportunity that existed and my suitedness to take advantage of it. Third, he had to have a clear vision about how the opportunity could benefit the company and me. The opportunity would need to deepen my experience and increase my skills, making me a more valuable employee. Fourth, he had to have a genuine interest in seeing me succeed. In short, he had to care about me.
Using this story as an example, we can draw out the four skills that open-door leaders commonly apply. You need to:
Know your employees: Have extensive knowledge about the backgrounds, needs, and desires of your employees. Invest time in getting to know them beyond the tasks they get done for you. Ask them directly about their career goals and aspirations— what do they want to get out of this job? Keep in mind the goal isn't to intrude or interrogate. It's to gain
insight into their goals, strengths, and motivations. We'll talk more about this in the coming chapters.
• Match suitedness: Draw connections between the opportunity and the developmental needs of your employees. This involves constantly being on the lookout for opportunities that can advance your employee's career. Then, when opportunities are identifi ask yourself, “Whose growth and development would pursuing this opportunity most advance?”
• Envision the desired results: Have a clear picture of the desired benefi that given opportunities present for the employees and the organization. Once an opportunity is assigned, do some “future-casting” with your employee, thinking through the potential
benefi the employee and the organization—that could emerge if the opportunity is successfully accomplished. Also give some thought to the actions that will have to occur to maximize the probability of success.
• Provide ongoing support: Genuinely want, and support, your employees' success. This skill is an outgrowth of the other three. When you really know the aims of your employees—when you've assigned them to a juicy opportunity that's ripe for their skills and worked with them to develop a clear picture of a successful outcome—you almost can't help but take a strong interest in their success. Stay involved by periodically asking what support they need
from you, removing barriers that might block their progress, and offering encouragement and guidance when they hit roadblocks and bottlenecks. The more you cultivate these skills, the more you will see opportunities to open doors for others. The starting place is a strong opportunity focus, which is the subject of the next chapter.
Open-Door Actions and Reflections
1. Think back over the course of your career.
• What are some opportunities that have been given to you?
2. How have those opportunities helped you grow personally and professionally?
• Which opportunity stands out as particularly important?
• Who brought the opportunity to you?
• What is your impression of him or her as a leader?
• Why do you think you were selected for the opportunity instead of someone else?
3. Look over the four skills of an open-door leader.
• Which ones did the person who brought you the opportunity use?
• Based on what you've read so far about opendoor leadership, was the person who brought you the opportunity an open-door leader?