Kelly Powell is the author of Courage to Lose Sight of Shore and the founder and partner of MacLaurin Group.
Many years ago, one of my most valued employees—we’ll call her Kenzie—was a chambermaid at her children’s kindergarten. The class was having a holiday party and she arranged to leave work early to attend.
On the day of the party, I walked past her office around 5 p.m. and she sat at her desk sobbing.
“What are you still doing here?” I asked. She explained that one of our longest standing customer relationships with the highest revenue had a problem and she stayed to fix it. “You have to go to the party,” I begged. “It’s too late,” she said. “I missed the kids making their grand entrance in the parade in holiday costumes.”
I was absolutely gutted. I thought I was always approachable as a leader, but I wasn’t at the moment. Otherwise she would have asked for my help.
However approachable you think you are, your employees may think differently. And if you’re not approachable, your team isn’t bringing valuable information to your attention. This includes not only issues related to their personal life, but also ideas for the business, potential problems with clients and more.
Here are three ways to become more approachable.
1. Promote self-awareness.
You have an image in your head of who you are as a leader, but how accurate is that image?
Take an honest look at yourself and focus on what you are actually doing. What do you talk about most often? What behaviors do you encourage and reward? How do you deal with problems?
Also consider how your employees act, as that is typically a reflection of your leadership. Do they tell you when they are having a hard time? Are they comfortable asking for help when they need it? Are they only saying what you want to hear?
After my experience with Kenzie, I went back and looked at how I acted as a leader. I realized I was a cheerleader too many times and said to my team, “You can do it!” and encourage them to do more. With self-awareness, I realized I needed more balance, and I changed my attitude to, “We can all give extra at certain times, but we can’t always give extra.”
2. Clearly communicate your priorities and values.
When I asked Kenzie why she stayed, she said, “I thought you’d want me to.”
That was not at all what I wanted. I would never want my employees to miss important moments in their personal lives. She thought she knew my priorities and values, but she didn’t. Whose fault was that? Mine.
Your voice is very important as a leader. Your values and priorities can’t just be words on your company website or something you talk about once or twice a year. You have to communicate them over and over again.
Now, here’s the real key: You need to communicate your values and priorities as a collective, not individually. When Kenzie stayed late, I had three big priorities as a leader: making our customers successful, supporting employee well-being, and growing profits.
And I had already made a mistake there. I’ve separated the priorities. And my number one priority was the customer.
We often spoke explicitly about customer success because it was part of our daily practice. Yet all conversations about employee well-being took place separately. They had to happen in the same conversation. That way, employees would know that all three were priorities to balance, rather than prioritizing one (customer success) over the others (employee well-being and profit).
3. Lead by example.
You’ve heard the saying “actions speak louder than words”. You can’t just talk about your values and priorities; you have to demonstrate them. That means if you want others to balance customer success, employee well-being and profit, you should be comfortable to create the same balance for yourself. (Your priorities may be slightly different from mine. Either way, to be approachable, there must be a balance between business success and individual well-being.)
You may struggle with that balance for several reasons, such as:
• You feel responsible and think you have to do something yourself.
• You don’t want to be a burden to others.
• You don’t want to disappoint those who see you as an example.
But guess what? Your employees feel and think the same things. And you know what else? Having the right balance as a leader makes you more approachable and creates a healthy team culture. This is why:
• Working as a team means shared responsibility. Kenzie felt that since the problem was with one of her accounts, she was the only one who could do it. In fact, she had already come up with a great solution. All that was left was communicating to the customer, which someone else could easily do.
• My experience is that people often like to help each other. They see it not as a burden but as a gift.
• Sharing responsibilities does not make people think less of you. It just shows that you are human and gives them the space to be human too.
Your team will rise to your example. Find your own balance and integrate your priorities collectively, then you become more approachable.
The accessible leader
After finding Kenzie sobbing at her desk, I gathered up various Christmas decorations and candy we had in the office and gave them to her for the kids. “Go now,” I told her. “Maybe you missed the election, but you can still get there.”
I couldn’t erase the damage done, but at least I could mitigate it. And if she ever found herself in a similar situation, she now knew she could approach me.
This moment will stay with me for the rest of my career and it has undoubtedly made me a better leader. Don’t wait for such a moment. Become more approachable by promoting self-awareness, clearly communicating your values and priorities, and leading by example.