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An Open Door

I like the following insight. My takeaway? Slow down, be available, listen, be patient, ask questions, the less said the better. Most people aren't looking to others for the answers; they just need to talk out their situation. Encouragement, not solutions.

From Gary Burnison:

In the town where I grew up, doors were always open. No one thought twice about tapping on the screen door and calling out, “Hello!” as they let themselves into a neighbor’s house—they knew they’d be welcome.

As leaders, it’s what we all need to be doing more of these days—opening doors, whenever and however we can.

It’s a different take on leadership—and goes right to the heart of a question I heard this past week. In the middle of a discussion, someone asked—out of nowhere and a bit out of context—“What’s the role of a leader?”

Instinctively, I went to the emotional roots of what it means to lead others: “When I think of a leader, I think of a mother, father, sister, brother.”

No doubt, an unexpected response. But step back and consider what those four people represent—protector, supporter, comforter, conscience … In other words, someone willing to show others the way—not just tell them the way.

And that’s the essence of opening the door for someone. At the same time, the person must be willing to step inside.

This calls to mind a conversation I had this past week with Alina Polonskaia, Global Leader of our firm’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consulting practice, who emigrated to Canada from Siberia. “When I arrived, I had to establish a new life from scratch,” she told me. “One of the biggest hurdles was getting my first job.”

Then one day, by chance, Alina met a woman who was an executive at a very large and well-known company. Alina recognized that this was her chance and let this woman know how much she wanted to work there. Something clicked, and this executive would not let Alina leave without getting her resume—with a promise to pass it on to another leader at the company with a personal note. She was confident this should be Alina’s next home—and opened the door to help make that happen.

Too often, though, people hesitate to raise their hands for help—and, yes, that includes leaders. Often this reluctance stems from the belief that they should already know what to do. There’s a risk/reward involved, and they can’t afford to appear vulnerable (or even embarrassed) in front of others.

But here’s the thing. No one is infallible—we all need help.

A few months ago, someone who was preparing a presentation confided to me how anxious they felt as the 11th hour neared. “Look, no one knows this topic better than you,” I said. “So, if you like, here’s what we can do.”

We sat down together and started going through the presentation—shoulder to shoulder, slide for slide. I could see his confidence grow and his personality come to life. “Just like that!” I told him.

The reality is, I didn’t do much. He surely didn’t need me for expertise—only for some assurance.

But let’s face it. As leaders, we won’t be able to open the door for anyone if people don’t see us as approachable. My absolute favorite example of what not to do is a manager I knew several years and a few iterations ago. Wanting to protect his time for quiet, uninterrupted work, this manager made a big red stop sign and taped it on his closed office door.

No surprise—people got offended. The manager, however, was stunned. He really thought his stop sign would be helpful. Instead, the message received was “Go away.”

Opportunities only come through an open door. And that takes leadership.

The fact is, we all have potential—it’s the common denominator. But potential will remain a mere fraction—substantially less than one—without the numerator of opportunity.

So how does that happen?

When someone has an idea … we listen. If someone around us wants to try something new … we encourage. When our colleagues want to collaborate … we welcome. When accomplishments are achieved … we celebrate. And when someone deserves recognition ... we are the voice.

Indeed, it’s up to us to open the door.


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