I had someone this past week ask me what it takes to be approachable as a leader. They said they felt I was approachable, and it was something they wanted to work on this year to become a better leader themselves. This conversation took place early in the morning and as soon as I was asked the question, I started rambling. I left this conversation not feeling too great about the whole interaction. To begin with, I did not feel like I answered the question as well as I should or could have. Secondly, I feel I did not handle the conversation in the appropriate way. I want to take some time in this post to address both of those mistakes.
First, to answer the question better for the person with whom I spoke, here are a few- hopefully more coherent- ideas as to what I feel it takes to be an approachable leader:
Body language and demeanor can often say more about your thoughts and feelings than any words. I always try to smile at people and say hello as I pass them during the day. I feel this small dose of positive attitude opens the door for conversations down the road. If I come across as guarded on a regular basis, then I feel people will be less comfortable approaching me with what could be a difficult conversation. I also always encourage other staff members and parents to call me by my first name. Again, I feel this can break down some of the barriers to initiating a conversation. So, first and foremost, to be approachable, make sure you demeanor and attitude (on a daily basis) make others comfortable in speaking with you.
How many times have you found yourself in a conversation, knowing exactly what you are going to say before the other person even stops sharing their thoughts? If we want to be approachable, we must make sure conversations focus on the other person not on ourselves. Listen fully, stop, think, paraphrase, and then respond. As leaders, the conversation is not about us, it is about being supportive of the person who approached you. Most of the time, the advice you are quick to give is not as good as you think it is anyway. If you take time to be reflective before you answer, the advice you give will usually be more sound and taken with more merit. People have two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them in that proportion.
Ask questions that make it about the people you are talking with and their needs, not about you or your own personal needs. If we want to support others, we need to know where they need supported the most or what support they might even need. If we do not dig a little deeper in conversations, we will only help in superficial ways. Asking questions allows us to figure out where a person is starting, then and only then, can we support them in pointing them in the correct direction and then taking the critical first steps.
Many times leaders can do all the items above extremely well but then lack follow through. Even though people may feel comfortable approaching you, they will not ask anything of you if they do not feel you will do what you say. To be approachable, be sure you are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Returning to that earlier conversation, I estimate that I violated most of the list I have laid out for you up to this point; and I feel I did not handle the conversation on the whole properly. I was quick to respond with my thoughts, and I made the conversation about me rather than about the person to whom I was speaking. I listened briefly and started talking immediately. I am sure the advice I gave was not that good anyway (part of the reason I felt the need to write this post) and I asked very few questions to really dig into why the person did not feel approachable by others in the first place.
So, if I had a do over for this conversation, I believe it would look very different. The conversation would still start with the individual saying, “I feel you are approachable. What do you think it takes to become more approachable as a leader?” But, how I respond would follow the items I outlined above and would look something like this:
I would respond to the initial question with: Why do you feel I am approachable? (wait for response), What else? (wait for another response), Anything else? (wait for another response). Then continue with this question until there are no more responses.
Then I would ask something like: Which one of those things do you feel you do not do well? (wait for response), why is (insert response) challenging for you as a leader? (wait for response), tell me more about this challenge?
After fully hearing out the struggle with this/these aspects of being approachable, I would ask: What do you think you can do to work on improving in this area? (wait for response) How can you go about doing that?
After letting this person talk and work through the answer, I would finish the conversation by asking: What can I do to support you in this area? Then and only then, is it time for me to maybe share some of my thoughts about what it takes to be approachable.
This is a very different conversation than the original one I stumbled my way through last week.
Some of you may be thinking, just get to the point! Tell me what I need to do to be more approachable. The problem with just telling about what works for me, well, it may not be what works for the person on the other side of the conversation. My style as a leader, is just that, my style. It does not and will not work for everyone. To help others become better leaders, we must help them understand themselves and what works for them. Unless we truly understand where people are, we cannot help them take the next step.
I think this idea applies to many aspects of our lives: teaching, parenting, being a great spouse, a great friend, and so on. When people feel valued and appreciated they always seem to do more than what is expected. If we start by valuing people first in our conversations we will become much more approachable. If I just want to spout off advice, I can do that anywhere, anytime. Talking rather than listening, unfortunately, is what many people have come to expect and is why much of what we are trying to say as a leader falls on deaf ears. If we truly want to support those we serve, we must be open to and grateful for everything with which people approach you. Each opportunity is a way to build a better relationship with the students, teachers, staff members, or whoever else it is you are aiming to serve.