In my early days as a manager, I made a gigantic rod for my own back with a wide-ranging open-door policy. I was very keen to be accessible to all my staff, and it left me exhausted, under-productive, and unable to switch off. I knew then that I had to make drastic changes.
You see, there was nothing at all wrong with my desire to be accessible to my staff. A successful leader is one who keeps in close touch with his people; one who can relate to their daily experiences. So my desire was a commendable one. How I went about it, though, now that was something else.
I had no boundaries. My office door was, quite literally, open – all the time. People came and went, some more frequently than others. My phone was constantly ringing, and was almost unfailingly being answered by me. And even after work, the fun didn’t stop. I was constantly on call with my email, replying to messages at crazy hours of the night. Those were the good old days when the Blackberry reigned supreme, and, even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the red flashing light that frequently summoned me to ‘duty’.
No wonder I was exhausted. But then I didn’t know any other way to be – I genuinely thought that it was my job to be on call for every single person who needed me, whenever they needed me. I could remember my days as a young lawyer, waiting for ages to see my boss about one important thing or the other, and sometimes not managing to do so. I knew how that made me feel, and I had resolved that none of my employees should ever have to feel that way.
All very worthy, no doubt. But impractical. As I never tire of saying, we are human. The constantly open door soon wearied me. At one point, my secretary even threatened to pull up a chair and sit outside my door, so as to deter any future visitors. Perhaps I should have listened to her.
I finally made the necessary change when I saw that this practice was not working for me. I was serving too many people, and in so doing, I was beginning to lose my focus. I had a big vision for my organization, but in the midst of all the to-ing and fro-ing, I was leaving that by the wayside. I had to set my boundaries, and fast.
I was helped very much by my coach who gently pointed out that boundaries were important, and that being unavailable some of the time was not a sign of bad leadership. What was necessary was for people to know when they could get hold of me, and, just as important, when they would not be able to do so. People needed to see my boundaries, and then they could plan around them. Saying ‘no’ did not make me inaccessible. It simply showed where my boundaries lay.
With some hesitation, I took her advice. I was very sure that there would be an outcry at my new-found ‘inaccessibility’. Shockingly enough for me, there was none. People understood when my secretary laid down the rules as to when I was available, and when I wasn’t. They understood the new policy and they respected it.
I took my newly set boundaries seriously, and in doing so, gained for myself the freedom to plan my work, and to bring forward my vision for the organization. I also found that, no longer feeling under so much pressure, I valued even more the time I spent with my staff. We were able to build even stronger relationships as we worked together within set boundaries.