Do You Have an "Open Door" Policy that Works?

Last Updated Jul 1, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Imagine you have a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door, with a line drawn through "not."

This is the advice of Jim Shepard, a former CEO of Canfor, a Canadian lumber company. In an interview in the Globe and Mail, he explained the philosophy that helped him lead his forest products company through tough times: "Make certain you don't surround yourself with people who are afraid to give you bad news...You need a few to say, "Boss, you're not going to want to hear this, but we have a serious problem here.'"

Shepard's advice may be common sense but that does not mean it is commonplace. All too often well-intentioned leaders allow themselves to be walled off from the life of the organization they lead. Often they do it not because they feel privileged (although that is a sentiment) but because it is easier and more efficient to work with a small team of folks with whom you are comfortable.

These folks, often with the best intentions, keep the top leader away from the hoi polloi of the organization. As a result, the view from the C-suite is the only view the leader has and it is limiting. That's why Shepard's open door policy is so appropriate. The challenge is now to put his thinking into practice. Here are some suggestions.

Visit people where they work. Nothing conveys importance to an employee than when senior leaders show up on their floor or their conference room. It conveys that they are important to the organization. It also helps reinforce collegiality and contributes to more open communications because the environment is familiar to the employee, and not stuffy and formal as a corporate boardroom.

Invite folks to your office. One CEO told me that he invited an employee into his office only to have the man say he had never been in the CEO's office. That signaled to the executive that he, like Jim Shepard, needed an open door policy. Bringing people into the corner office connotes that you value input from others and that you value the input of this individual, so much so you brought him or her into your office. That is an esteem-building exercise for any employee.

Play host. I'll never forget working with a business unit president responsible for some $2 billion in revenues, who upon meeting me for the first time asked, "May I get you a cup of coffee or water?" He, not his administrative assistant, was getting one for himself and everyone else in the meeting. Instantly I felt part of the team. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed cocktail hour at the White House where he, even confined to his wheelchair, could mix up the concoctions and play host.

Of course, a CEO is not the maître d' in chief. She has a full plate of work to devour and her time is scheduled down to the minute, but when she exerts discipline over her schedule so that she makes time to listen and more importantly learn from employees at every level, she avoids the trap of senior leadership â€" being caught in a bubble where information, like air, is so rarified it contains no impurities. That is, no bad news.

Experienced leaders learn to create an open door policy that really means open. People can reach out to the senior leader, especially when things are not going well. Yes, there must be limits to access, but it is so often better to err on the side of access than on the side of unavailability. Such openness demonstrates three things to employees: one, you are engaged in the leadership; two, you are open to new ideas; and three, employees have a voice.

Leaders who make a habit of walking the halls literally and figuratively are leaders who are in tune with what is happening and much less likely to be blindsided by the unexpected.

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image courtesy of flickr user, renaissancechambara