Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Open Door Swings Out

One of the single most distressing meetings in business is when a talented, valuable, and once-enthusiastic employee stops in to say a final goodbye.

As you chat, you realize that many of the reasons he resigned could have been avoided or improved. Later, as you read through the formal exit interview, you realize that all of the reasons the employee left could have been addressed if you, or others in the organization, had listened better.

What's odd, of course, is that you have an open door policy.  Anyone can come in at any time and talk about any problem.  Except, I have learned, there is a fundamental truth about open-door policies: The door must swing out.

Perhaps one-in-twenty of your employees will ever take advantage of your inward-swinging open-door policy.

Here is the recipe for a workable open door policy. Stand up from the desk. Walk out the door of your office. Walk up to someone working for the company and ask the second-most important question in corporate America: “How are things going?”

Since you are an intimidating senior manager, they will inevitably say, “Fine.” If you stop there, you will have failed.  The next question, the most important, is: “Tell me what you’re working on.”

Now you have a conversation because, in most cases, “what you’re working on” is real and interesting and worth discussing. Somewhere in the next ten minutes you will be able to ask again, “So, how are things going?”--and this time you might get a real answer. And that can be followed eventually by “Are you having any fun?” Which will allow you to ask the only most important question: “How can I help?”

Unless the door swings out, an open door policy is just another management tool, like a colorful dashboard, that provides nothing more than a false sense of security.