For the third time in as many days, I have heard the word “approachability” used as one of the absolute key characteristics of excellent leaders. The highly respected DiSC 363 assessment uses the word in its interpretative reports. The term is often thrown around as if everyone understands it.

That I doubt.

Many leaders want very much to be perceived as approachable, which is great. Unfortunately, many firmly believe they have that quality when, too often, the total opposite is true. I am willing to bet more than a few of you are guilty of being unapproachable.

How? It might be easier to show you through a fictional example:

Carla is the COO for a medium-sized organization. Francisco is a new hire and told to go to Carla for the answer to a question he had. Carla’s door is closed, and the translucent glass inset shows that the room is dark so Francisco goes away. The next day, the same closed door.

Three days later, Francisco decides to knock. After a few seconds delay, a voice says, “Come in.” Francisco pushes the door open to find an unsmiling woman behind a desk. The woman does not look up from the paper she is reading for several seconds. Finally, she says, “How can I help you?”

Francisco has to make a decision. Does he try to sit down on one of the two chairs that are both piled high with papers or does he state his case in the doorway? He stays in the doorway.

“Well, ma’am, I’m new to the organization and I was told you might be able to help me with a question I have.”

“Okay, what’s the question? 

“Well, I was hoping we could discuss the item in the personnel manual about–”

Carla interrupts before Francisco can finish his sentence. “That’s a question for HR,” she snaps. “Sheila Snodgrass. Down the hall, third door on the left,” and returns to studying her important documents.

****

Approachable? Not quite! So, what does approachability look like? How about another example from a fictional office across town?

“Hi, Adrian. Thanks for stopping by—and welcome to ABC Corporation! I’d heard you joined us last week and have been looking forward to meeting you.” Carolyn stands up, approaches Adrian, and shakes his hand. “Here, have a seat,” she said, pointing to a chair devoid of papers, books.

Taking the chair next to him and not the one behind the desk, Carolyn says, “So pleased you stopped by. How are things going?”

****

It seems so obvious, right? However, it is not so, with all too many folks in leadership positions.

Approachability means your employees feel like they can talk to you. It also means you don’t set up barriers. These barriers could be a constantly closed door, a phone set on do not disturb, the chairs in your office piled with junk or only meeting with people from behind your desk, etc.

So let’s define approachability in measurable terms. Approachable means someone feels welcome in your presence and as if they are your priority. This can translate to the following physical factors:

  • Door is frequently open
  • Office is arranged to welcome people, not drive them away
  • Leader moves to round table and invites visitor to join her.
  • Tone of voice is friendly and interested
  • Eye contact is forthcoming and genuine
  • Seating arrangement is clear of obstacles
  • Phone, email sounds are turned off
  • Cell phone is turned off and out of sight

In many ways, approachability is exactly what you think it is. The real question about approachability is whether you are projecting it or not. Be sure to consider your literal or figurative barriers before you determining how approachable you are as a leader.