Leadership is often correlated with mentorship or coaching, providing some form of assistance to others, supporting them while they increase their effectiveness and potential. However, not everyone in leadership knows how to do this or can do it consistently. In this third part in my series on leadership we’ll explore what it takes to be a leader who effectively nurtures others. Nurturing others sounds pretty easy. As easy as “my door is always open”, which we all know means, “my door is always open…until it’s closed because I am in meetings, on the phone, on business travel…”. One of my clients explained his organizations’ culture this way “our leaders are approachable, yes, but not accessible”; while the offer to assist was sincerely made, it was not possible to execute. This is not a surprise in today’s business environment, with work velocity increasing, shrinking margins and contracting workforces there is less opportunity to make a difference one-on-one in the lives of colleagues, peers and employees unless it is specifically prioritized.
So is that it? Is the key to effectively nurturing others creating the time for it? Yes, in part, but that is the easy part (easy being a relative term). The more intangible part of nurturing resides in the strength of ones’ interpersonal skills and how effectively you can apply them situationally. Being a true leader, one who can see above day-to-day work necessities to recognize when one of your team needs help, also implies that you can step away from your own needs and invest the emotional currency to see things from your employee or peers’ perspective. When a leader can do this you are not waiting for the individual to come to you, you are paying attention and able to proactively provide the signals needed to reinforce that your support is there. You are better able to ask the right kinds of questions in a timely manner that will proactively illuminate when someone may be struggling and could use some assistance (possibly even before they know they need it). You are able to display the right level of expression to build trust through authenticity.
This goes well beyond the “my door is always open” paradigm and thankfully so! While that used to be a stock message it has become a parody of itself (quipped in satirical productions the world over). Your door should always be “open”, if its not you should examine why. But we are not talking about a door are we? No we aren’t…and we never were. So lets communicate this important leadership message with the respect it deserves; let those around you know “I’ll be here when you need me to be here”. If you really want to make a strong statement then also add “I am often busy, but please let me decide how to prioritize my time by letting me know your needs, don’t try and decide for me or I won’t be of much help to you.” The other myth that is wrapped in this door-open convention is that individuals should be coming to you, but it creates a signal that when they do you will drop everything and attend to their needs – that is impossible to do consistently. This is what has so quickly soured “open-door” – it is noble to state you’ll be there in an immediate way for your employees, but if that is what you’ve committed to you’ve written a check you likely can’t cash. We’ve all frowned and shaken our heads at someone trying to get our attention while we were in a meeting or on the phone (everyone has done this, you don’t have to be in management to find yourself in this position). Urgent items will always make themselves heard, but an employee looking for the promised sounding board? You get one shot at that. If you frame it correctly and build a wider path that indicates to the employee to try more then once to get what they need you’ll be providing the leadership they need. If you were on the phone when they walked to your office or pinged you on instant message, follow-up with them to see what they needed, letting them know when you may be free for a few minutes. Encourage them to give you a time frame so you can prioritize correctly (sometimes you may need to help them with this). When you have communicated effectively with your team they will not get frustrated when you are not immediately accessible; your staff will demonstrate a measure of resiliency in putting effort behind making arrangements to secure your time and then use your time well.
The open door also implies that you will not be going to your staff - your employees have to come to you. When your aim is to nurture others it has to be a two way street. You need to check in and understand what is happening on the ground, see how people are feeling, ensure there is understanding and catching things while they are manageable. Removing impediments and paving the way for employees to be truly effective is what sets great leaders apart. If you do this regularly by engaging employees outside of meetings, chatting with them about their work (in a non-threatening way) you will cultivate accessibility. Doing this regularly also means it takes less time to provide supportive leadership. The fact that you interact with them in a balanced way (not just when there is a strong message to deliver) builds trust, you are also more transparent and can provide that interpersonal aspect of leadership that fosters good relations. This is not you becoming best friends with everyone on your team, helping them through a personal issue. This is you representing your organization in an accessible and authentic way, building your knowledge of what is happening and enabling individuals to be their best, and then getting out of their way while they do it.