Open Door Policy Just Doesn’t Work

As more and more companies move to modern methods of management and words like empowerment, coaching, and meaning float around there is also a popular concept of “open door policy”. Many managers and HR departments would subscribe and even advertise the notion that the company is trying to create an open and transparent environment and everyone should always feel free to raise their voice and point out issues. But does it actually work? And what steps you as a leader need to take to make sure your team really comes to you with concerns and ideas?

Open door policy

In its essence, open door policy is a way of communication in which a manager leaves his virtual “office door” open to employees. The idea is to encourage informal, open, and transparent communication between the company and the employees. Anyone can at any point approach the manager and suggest improvement, come up with concern or provide feedback. It sounds great and something one should strive for but it has its downsides. How many of your employees actually do come to you on their own? Chances are that not too many. Why? There are numerous reasons. It can be that they don’t really trust you and are afraid to provide feedback. Doing it anonymously would be preferable. Or they feel that if you want to know something you will ask. Or they believe you probably thought of the idea yourself so why to bring it up. Or they are introverted. Or they simply don’t know how to breach the subject.

There are also other aspects of the open door policy that can create a rather messy working environment. If people cannot talk to their boss, he is not around or doesn’t care they may talk to others. That is what open door policy encourages. Go and talk to HR, or do a skip level meeting with your bosses boss, and since that person does not have enough context it is a great opportunity to play some politics.

In short, open door policy does not work unless the manager puts enough effort into making it work.

Management by walking around

It is your role and responsibility to reach out and build relationships. Some time ago, I wrote an article Management By Walking And Sitting Around where I talked about the importance of being “with the team”. It is a great way to start building relationships with your employees and to remove some of the worries they may have with approaching you. So let me sum up the basics as described in the article above:

  • Walk – be on the floor with your team every single day to create opportunities for people to talk to you and for them to know you are there for them.
  • Talk – talk about them, life, hobbies, family, business, what they work on, what issues they have, reinforce the goals and acknowledge the job well done.
  • Remember – get to know your team, remember the things important to them, or even the small things you can follow up on later on to show you care.
  • Follow up – if you promised to do something during your walk then make sure you follow up, do the action items and get back to the person with results.
  • Make a habit of it – do it and do it often since there is nothing more important than leading your team.
  • Sit – sit with the team to understand their daily problems and struggles. It is a great to understand how the work is being done and what you can do to help.
  • Show – when you sit with your team, you should be at your best behavior. This is a unique opportunity to show how you expect the team to work without even talking about it.

Open floor policy

Open floor policy goes a step beyond the management by walking around. It is not only about you being visible and having good relationship with your employees. It is about regularly seeking feedback and closing loops on any open issues.

So let us expand our management by walking around by three more steps:

  • Seek – seek feedback on what can be done better by you and by the team. It does not have to be a big conversation about huge issues the company has. If done on daily basis chances are that it will be small things that can be easily adjusted to and the team can quickly see results. If they see you are listening to what they are saying it will encourage them to say more.
  • Find – ask for problems even when no proposed solutions exists. It is a corporate mantra “bring me solutions, not problems” and there are situations where it really should work that way. It always looks better when you come to your boss pointing out a problem and at the same time propose a way to fix it. This is definitely true when the solutions to the problems are within your competence and sphere of influence. However, if you create environment like this then you are also saying “if you don’t have a solution don’t come to me at all”. And that is not particularly healthy situation and can lead to people not raising their concerns. In your walk around the office make sure people understand that they can bring you problems and you will work on solutions together.
  • Close – close loops and ensure that when feedback is provided to you the employees also see what actions were taken base on this feedback. When it comes to feedback the surest way to discourage it is to ignore it. People will tell you once, twice, maybe three times and then they just stop. If they believe you will ignore what they say, then why make the effort and say anything? It is the same as with any surveys. You may fill in the survey and answer bunch of questions but if you do not see any results of this effort. If no one communicates what was done with your feedback, then chances are you will not participate the second time.

When you do these things then you pretty much eliminate any negative aspects of the open door policy and only the good is left. The team simply has enough trust in you that they will come to you with any issues they may have and you have a truly open and transparent environment. And if the team does talk to people several levels above or to HR there are no surprises. You and your team are aligned.

Keep in mind that it will not work from day one. Since it is issue of trust you first need to show to the team that you are trustworthy. You can find some thoughts on this one in You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles. Over time with some small wins the team will be more and more open, feedback will start flowing, and the truly open and transparent communication kicks in.

 

What are your thoughts on open door policy? Does it work? And what about management by walking around? Do you practice it and what is your experience with it?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

You Can’t Lead Without Values And Principles

I was recently reviewing some job descriptions for management roles and realized that something is missing. I then went and searched some job advertisements for managerial roles and again one critical aspect was missing. They all talked about the duties, technical aspects of the job, even sprinkled a bit of stuff about communication and collaboration. It was all about what to do. What stroked me was a total absence of how the job should be done. There was nothing about core values the manager should have principles he or she should follow and believe in. When you think about it, these are the basics. How can you expect to fill a role in organization if you don’t understand what core values of that organization are and whether they align with yours? How can you sign up for a job if you don’t understand the basic principles that govern anything that is happening at the company?

Core values

What are core values? You can find numerous definitions but I would subscribe to this one. Core values are a set of the fundamental beliefs of a person or an organization. They define the organization and answer the question “How do we do business here? What is important to us?” They define the person and answer the question “Who am I? What is important to me?”

The core values are North Star that will guide the organization or individual in the times of change. Strategy may change, product portfolio may change, people on the team may change, but the core values are stable. They help to decide what is right and what is wrong, they help to guide day to day decisions, they set basic rules of how we work together and get things done. They also create a great opportunity to distinguish the company from its competitors.

Unfortunately, too many companies use the values only because they were told it is a good idea to have some. They would put together a common set like honesty, openness, teamwork, hard-work and print it on the walls without giving it any meaning and without even trying to live by them. Too bad. When you use the core values right, they can be a powerful force to move your business forward. The more “weird” description of values you come up with, the better as you will remove the stigma of “corporate speak” and they will also force you to work with them regularly to keep explaining what they mean in everyday life of every individual.

When I started at my current company there was one word repeated to me on every single presentation, every single meeting, and every single interaction I would have with senior management. “Daily!” It was never described as a core value but it was very clear that everything what’s going on in the company, every decision, and the way we run business is influenced by this one word. It was the competitive advantage we built into the culture that forced the team to act differently from the “old and tired” competitors with long delivery and sales cycles or slow customer support. It showed me how powerful core values can be when they are truly lived by everyone in the organization.

The same goes to individuals. If you want to lead others, you need to have a set of core values that define your actions and that are understandable to others around you. In ideal situation most of these values should have some counterparts in the company values. At worst, they shouldn’t clash. If they do, you are not in the right job and the right company. To figure out what your personal core values are I would suggest you go through some of the tips I described in The Ultimate Question Of Life, The Universe And Everything.

Aspirational Values

How do you come up with core values for your company? Do you create a survey, ask everyone what they believe the values should be and then ask HR to collect it and print out a nice list? Wrong. The core values need to support the business you are trying to build and run. They very often reflect beliefs of the founders or the relatively small number of executives who understand where the organization needs to get and how to get it there. The role of everyone else is to design systems and processes that would support these values and select people to the organization whose values are aligned with those of the company. That is the only way to get to maximal performance.

But what if one of the values that the executive team comes up with is “transparency” and when you look at the organizational processes you see complete opposite? That is fine! This is what Patrick M. Lencioni would call an aspirational value. It is a value that the organization wants and needs to adopt to be successful in the future. It is important to acknowledge that it is not a core value yet, otherwise it would just reek of hypocrisy. Accepting that we are not “transparent” today, but that is the key competitive advantage of the future and working hard to adjust processes so they support this aspirational value will get us there. It won’t be an easy journey and may even mean changes in the team composition since not everyone’s core values will align with the one we are trying to build into the organization.

Principles and natural laws

Merriam-Webster defines Principle as:

  • a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption
  • a rule or code of conduct
  • the laws or facts of nature underlying the working of an artificial device

Why are we talking about this? It is important to realize that whatever core or aspirational values an organization or an individual have they are still governed by natural laws. Basic, underlying principles, that can’t be bent or ignored. For example, you may say that one of the core values of yours is “we invest in our people”. To prove it you give new employees two days to study thousand pages manual and then take an exam. Chances are that some of them will actually succeed. How? They will cheat! The problem is not that they would be in their core dishonest. The problem is that you broke a natural law that says that learning takes time and you have mistaken effectiveness with efficiency. You tried to live by your core value and be efficient at the same time. Unfortunately for you the nature said “no”, and you build a culture where people have to be dishonest from day one to align with your core value.

The modern society with ever increasing speed and need for efficiency is pushing us more and more to ignore the natural laws. That is one of the primary causes that leads to demotivation, frustration, and depression. In our subconscious mind we know that what we are trying to do or being asked to do is not in principle possible. But we still behave as it is not a problem and end up with some sort of acceptable results and depressed minds.

Trust and trustworthiness

And that leads me to the last and arguably most important aspect of successful leadership. It all starts with trust and trustworthiness. I would argue that if you, your boss, or your team are not trusting each other it leads to a rather lousy collaboration and ultimately lower performance than what the potential of the team is. And trust starts with each individual’s trustworthiness. How do you know whether someone or even you are trustworthy in the role you sit? To follow the thoughts of Stephen R. Covey you need to consider person’s character and competence. Character will tell you whether person’s core values are in line with the needs of the job. For example, would you trust a brilliant accountant to keep your books if you knew he regularly embezzles money? No. Competence then informs you whether the person is equipped to do the job from technical side. You probably wouldn’t give an accounting job to the most honest man in the World if you knew he can’t read and write, would you?

Back to basics

To sum all this up. When you are defining a leadership role, or in fact any role, in your organization or figuring out how to manage performance or develop people you need to start with the basics. Make sure you fill your jobs with trustworthy people, who have the character and the competence. Or who at least have the character and can build the competence over time with proper guidance. Then talk about what are the company’s core values and how they align with values of individuals you are considering for the role. While doing this that these core values needs to be aligned for two reasons. First, it is to ensure the total ecology of the environment you are creating and working in where the core values don’t go against each other. Second, you need to understand the natural laws that apply here and that some things simply won’t happen because that is not how mother nature works.

 

Do you think that strong core values are important for a leader? Do you lead by adhering to natural laws or are you trying to impose quick fixes on problems that they simply can’t fix without even realizing it?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Does Your Work Have Meaning?

Why do you work? Do you believe that what you do in your professional life has a meaning? What do you tell to your friends that you do? And more importantly what are you telling yourself on daily basis to get out of bed and to the office?

You hear it more and more. To be happy at your work you need a purpose, you need to understand what the meaning of your work is. Daniel H. Pink popularized this concept in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. Motivation in modern economy comes from three sources: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Let’s focus on Purpose. Do you believe that for your life to have a purpose or a meaning you need to do something larger than life? I don’t think so. Whatever your job is, as long as it fulfils a need of “someone” it has a purpose. The real question is: are you able to formulate the meaning in a way that will be motivating for you and that you can be proud of?

Have a mission statement

I used to be a software developer who at some point in my career figured that I like working with people more than with code. I will show you on my example what a professional mission in the life of a manager and a software developer can look like and what type of stories I tell to myself to keep loving what I do. My current professional mission statement reads like this:

“I’m an experienced engineering and operations leader passionate about setting up offices, building teams, growing people and solving difficult business problems.”

In this one sentence I tell you (and myself) how I want to be seen and what I believe the mission of my professional life is. When you ask me what I do, this is the answer you get. It doesn’t talk about specifics, company, role, or job title. These are just monikers people hide behind. If I told you I’m “director of engineering” or “operations manager”, what exactly would you learn about me? And more importantly, how exactly is that supposed to motivate me personally? The mission statement needs to tell you and those around you who you aspire to be, what your core values are, and what value you bring to others.

Let’s say you are a software developer. Could your mission statement read for example like this? “I’m an enthusiastic hacker and geek who enjoys solving hard business and technical problems by producing state of the art software.” Or if you want to be more specific about a particular domain “I’m an experienced software engineer with a knack for building well designed, scalable and easy to use IT management software that gives other IT professionals opportunity to have unparalleled view of their environment and helps them to easily solve complex IT problems.”

If I were a developer and self-talked to myself like this, I would be certainly proud on what I’m doing and saw a real purpose in my professional life. The great thing is that this is completely under your control! No more complains or excuses that “there is no vision”! You don’t rely on your company’s CEO to show you a great vision of the future and on your HR department to paint a company mission on the wall. Regardless of what the company does, or what your role is, you can create a mission statement for yourself that will make you feel valuable.

Have a story to tell

But it doesn’t end here. To have a one-line sentence with the mission statement is nice but it is pretty much an advertisement that may not provide enough insights into details of what you do and why you should be proud of it. It is a good reminder for you to know the big picture but having a story or two that document your successes, career high-lights, or things you are particularly proud is important to show who you truly are.

In my case I could for example look at some of the offices and teams I built over the years and summarize it in a short one paragraph story. It should be short for two reasons. First, it will force me to focus on the key aspects of why this particular time of my professional life is note-worthy. Second, it can be a good overview that won’t bore the listener for too long, being it a friend or an interviewer. I believe your story needs to have four parts: what happened, how it happened/what role you played, what were the results, why it was important for you personally and for others.

“[What happened] In 2008 I joined a small US based software development company with the mission to build a strategic R&D center in the Czech Republic. [How it happened] Coming from much bigger corporate environment I had the opportunity to build a new office and engineering teams from scratch. I interfaced with colleagues in the US and Ireland to get support and the company’s know-how. We hired the best software developers and QA engineers we could find and built a motivated high-performing team. I played not just the role of an engineering manager but also an office leader, a part-time HR and recruiter, interacting with recruitment agencies, vendors, universities and government agencies. [Results] Initially the team started small but eventually took on more and more work and responsibilities. Today majority of company’s key and most revenue generating products are built in the Czech Republic by a team of several hundred engineers. [Why it is notable] This project allowed me to build something new. It gave me the opportunity to improve my interviewing and people management skills and it gave me a chance to contribute significantly to the future success of the company creating career opportunities for hundreds of people.”

So what would your story be if you were a developer? I will use one from my previous life when I was still a geeky software developer.

“[What happened] In 2003 I joined a small US-based start-up that was a pioneer in building games for mobile phones. I was the only C/C++ developer with the mission to port some of the existing games to Palm OS and write new ones for an emerging technology – smartphones with Symbian OS. [How it happened] Having no previous experience with embedded systems and mobile devices I had to re-learn several programming languages (Symbian OS run a particularly nasty version of C++), I acted as the designer, architect, developer and tester and even created my own graphics. [Results] I built several games that showcased what can be done with modern technology utilizing smartphones, Bluetooth connections, and wireless data transfer in times when few other people have done so. Ultimately the start-up failed not getting investment it needed to operate. [Why it is notable] During this time I became one of the most experienced software developers building applications on Symbian OS platform. This fact would eventually lead me to become one of the key contributors to Symbian OS communities run by several large mobile phone vendors like Nokia and Siemens allowing me to share my knowledge and help others be successful.”

Words, stories and even short mission statements have a powerful spell. The way we talk to ourselves determines how are brains are being wired. When you come up with a story that focuses on your strengths, using positive language, and sprinkle some successes with a bit of vision of who you want to be chances are that you will eventually get there. As you probably noted from my two stories the mission of my professional life has obviously shifted as I moved from being an engineer to being a manager. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and change your mission as you grow both professionally and as a human being, but be very careful not to mix the mission with a short-term promotion or monetary rewards. Ultimately your mission need to give you the intrinsic motivation that no external stimuli can do.

So what will you tell your friends next time they ask you what you do? And what will you tell yourself tomorrow morning when your sleepy self asks you why you should get out of the bed and to the office? And remember, your work does have a meaning, you just need to take the initiative and put it to words!

 

Do you have a mission of your professional life? What is it? Do you believe that having a meaning at your work is important?

Originally published at LinkedIn.