I enjoy watching political dramas from time to time (The West Wing, Madam Secretary) and have made an observation: the people that are the most important tend to be the least accessible.
In Madam Secretary, access to the President, even by his most significant Cabinet members, is filtered by his Chief of Staff. The Secretary of State herself has a chief of staff and a personal assistant, both of which act as sieves to limit access to the Secretary. While her character is often very willing to have an audience with visitors that her staff would prefer to just send away, even still it’s not like anyone can just rap on her office door and ask for a quick 5 minutes.
The same dynamic is present in many of our workplaces, organizations, and associations. Those with the most senior positions tend to be the most difficult ones to get access to, especially for the average employee or volunteer.
There are a variety of reasons for this limited availability, some more understandable than others. Those with great responsibility and authority are likely to be very busy people; their time is limited (everyone’s is), and must be used most efficiently and strategically—or so the thinking goes. But does busyness indeed mean that time should only be reserved to meet with others of equal standing and responsibility?
Additionally, those with networks and spheres of influence are often sought out for some favor, a request to exert that influence on one’s personal behalf. Not all of these requests are as legitimate as others (perhaps more self-serving than benefiting the broader organization) and so there’s a perceived need to protect the time and energy of the senior Influencer from every person with a crackpot, private agenda that would love to get a situation manipulated toward their individual advantage.
Pragmatically, senior leaders may rarely actually be in the office, while also being buried under a deluge of email, inundated with text messages, and berated with a lengthy call-back list such that any given attempt at communication or engagement with them may become overlooked, or simply impossible. It’s tough to catch someone in his/her office if they’re never there. And if their schedule is booked weeks in advance, what hope do you have in catching him/her at an unscheduled but timely moment with a relevant question or concern?
In my book, Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, Part 6 explores the facilitation of excellent followership from the role of a leader. In Chapter 24 (“Displaying Dependence”), I comment: “The unreachable boss soon becomes the unnecessary one….”
A superior that you can’t get in touch with will eventually create an environment of organizational members figuring out how to perform their functions without connecting with the leader. While some bosses will prize the independence and lack of personal bother that results from their employees ‘just getting on with it,’ the reality is that “while the team will yet continue to function, it will be deprived of the connections, resources, and perspective that its leader should be contributing.”
The unreachable boss isn’t actually unnecessary—he or she still has a vital role to fulfill; but the work will go on, albeit impoverished by the disconnection and lack of opportunity for engagement between subordinates and superior.
This inverse relationship between importance and accessibility—more personal importance means less accessibility—is all too unfortunate, and is one of the contributing factors to organizational unhealth. While there are certainly cultural factors that come into play (this is a phenomenon known as ‘power distance’; see Chapter 10), ideally importance and accessibility should be directly related: those with authority and responsibility should be supported such that they can also remain accessible. Otherwise, on whose behalf are they exercising their role and fulfilling their responsibilities?
Because so many of our organizational cultures expect, and are oriented around, protectionistic practices (e.g. the role of the chiefs of staff mentioned above), the only way to change this paradigm is for the senior leader to make concrete steps to secure his/her own availability, to be proactive. This doesn’t just mean being reachable, but actually soliciting input and requesting time with people that might not usually make the select list of those deemed worthy of an audience.
I’m currently undergoing evaluation as I near the end of a three-year assignment and am being considered for another term. As my subordinates report on me, it is interesting to note that, so far, 100% of the respondents have noted my availability to listen, understand, and process. This is followed closely by appreciation for facilitating networking and resourcing.
These two leadership opportunities are absolutely linked together: being able to offer relevant resources and to facilitate fruitful networks is a direct result of taking the time–and ensuring availability–to listen. I actually have emails from my direct reports automatically filtered into a special email folder so that they not only don’t get overlooked, but get priority attention (coming even before a response to my own boss).
While I don’t have a chief of staff or gatekeeper that works to limit access to me, it would be easy enough to claim busyness or to divert my attention and energy elsewhere, instead of being responsive to the requests of those I’m overseeing. All the more, since my leadership relationships are all at a distance, there is no opportunity for them to simply peek into my office and see if I’m around. So, WhatsApp and rapid email responses have to fulfill the role of conveying my availability, and interest.
I’ll close with this, before my approach sounds all too magnanimous or altruistic: my accessibility is absolutely not an act of me deigning to lower myself to the needs of lesser employees. My accessibility is a direct result of having a role that includes influence and authority: I cannot do my job properly—fulfilling my leadership functions of facilitating the flow of resources, removing barriers, navigating networks, and providing perspective—unless I’m in touch with the team leaders that I’m charged with overseeing and supporting. My job becomes impossible, or based on nothing more than my own imagination or guessing, if I’m not available and engaged with my subordinates.
So how’s the dynamic between your influence and access? And how about your ability to access the influencers above you? In order to be about organizational effectiveness and encouraging excellent followership, let’s aim for access and influence to be a “both/and” facet of how we execute our role, rather than an either/or.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).
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