7 practical ways to be a more approachable leader

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4 mins, 38 secs read time

When you run a company and have a title like CEO or SVP, you’re a little scary by default.Being more approachable allows you to dial down the intimidation factor, much like decreasing the volume on a stereo.

It’s important that employees at all levels of the business feel comfortable knocking on your office door when there’s critical information you need to know. If they’re unafraid to tell you,“Hey, I saw a potential problem, and we need to shift course,” you can sidestep disaster.

For some employees – especially those who are ​less dominant by nature​ – speaking up takes a lot of courage. If there is even a bit more apprehension, they won’t speak up at all.

Here are seven actions you can take to be a more approachable leader:

1. Don’t pull rank​.

In other words, don’t be a jerk. If you’re in a conference room and someone else has it booked, get your butt out of your seat, apologize, and get out of there. Likewise, apologize if you interrupt a meeting – and mean it. Be genuine and authentic. People can smell a phony a mile away.

Sure, there are perks that come with being the boss, but don’t abuse your position by pulling rank. That’s a surefire way to kill the culture.

2. Park on the other side of the building.

You’ll get a chance to say hi to more people as you make your way to your office. Introduce yourself to everyone you don’t already know, and always say hello to the people you​ do​ know.Even if you’re not extroverted by nature, you need to push yourself to do this. Embrace relationships with your people (they’re your most valuable asset).

Set a quota to talk to five non-executive employees per day. Add this goal to your personal development plan. ​If you don’t hold yourself accountable, who will?

3. Give your time freely.

Put value on giving your time; if you don’t value this, you’ll never do it. Carve out 30-minute blocks to chat with employees who are early in their career over coffee – do this 1:1 whenever possible.

Ask them about their ambitions and what’s important to them. Listen actively and be interested in their answers. While they’re talking, think to yourself, “How can I improve their domain knowledge?”

Expose them to topics they might find valuable – even if those topics are above their pay grade.For example, explain a project you’re working on and what the implications might be for the business.

Ask how you can help them specifically, then do something (e.g. share an article or provide feedback the next time they present).

Don’t neglect your remote employees; grab a virtual coffee to let them know they matter.

4. Teach someone something.

Building off the first suggestion, offer to teach someone (not a direct report) something that will help them – even if it’s only tangentially related to their job. ​Don’t tell the person to put 30minutes on your calendar; ​you​ book it. Otherwise they might not.

Again, you need to value giving your time to others. If you have a high degree of dominance (as many business leaders do), you enjoy putting your thumbprint on things. Just think of the ripple effect you create when you change someone’s mindset by teaching them something new.

Does your company have a ​workplace book club​? Show up regularly and contribute to the conversation by sharing your views and knowledge. Just be sure to resist any urges you might have to dominate the conversation. When others talk, listen actively.

5. Be vulnerable​.

Vulnerability is especially important if you’re trying to build a ​fail-fast culture​ that encourages innovation. You can tell your people that “Errors of action are better than errors of inaction,” but if you don’t set the example, it could feel like lip service to some.

At the next all company meeting, admit a mistake you made or something you’re worried about.

The next time something goes wrong, praise the effort, not just results.

6. Give truthful, specific and positive feedback.

TSP​ is a must when giving feedback to employees at all levels. ​Know your audience and treat them as individuals. Tailor your feedback according to their preferences. Does the person in question love public recognition? Shout out their success on a public channel and explain what they did in detail, while tying their actions to a core value and/or a strategic objective.

Never give feedback out of anger or disappointment, never discipline or fire when angry, and never lose your cool. One angry moment will hang in the air long after the day is done.

7. Show appreciation with gifts.

Thoughtful small presents go a long way. Know an employee who’s always talking about his favorite band? Order him a laptop sticker. Does one of your programmers love to read? Pick up a funny bookmark.

While rewards should be substantial (e.g., a cash bonus or a promotion), gifts should be inexpensive – a simple token of appreciation. It’s these smaller gifts that show you’re human.

Have you earned your employees’ emotional trust?

Gallup​ studied 2.5 million teams and discovered a correlation between being able to “approach[one’s] manager with any type of question” and engagement levels.

Your people need to trust that you care about them, and they need to trust that you’re leading them to a good place. You might have their trust in your competence, but not their emotional trust. If that’s the case, becoming more approachable is a step in the right direction.