Opening doors Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Having an open-door policy is so important to Claire Zangerle that she literally removed the door that separated her suite from her employees. Then she knocked down a partition that blocked the view of the sitting area.

When Zangerle was named president and CEO of Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio in July 2008, she knew the position would require a culture shift. To emphasize what she was communicating to employees, she took the extra step of physically showing them her door is open.

“You have to be accessible to anyone and everyone in the organization,” says Zangerle, who has 783 employees at the $55 million organization. “To me, that’s an expectation of any leader.”

In order to have an effective open-door policy, guidelines need to be in place, including setting aside time and articulating what issues employees can bring through your door. However, even if they’re coming to your office, you can’t underestimate meeting employees on their turf.

Smart Business spoke with Zangerle about how to open your door to employees.

Invite employees through the door. I write a short, weekly update letter to all the employees, it goes out through e-mail and it’s posted on our intranet site. At the end of my letter every single week, I offer the simple open invitation.

You always have to open the invitation. I always end my letter with, ‘You know where to find me. My e-mail is this, my cell phone number is this, my extension is this, and my office is on the third floor.’

I think a simple open invitation in the beginning, some are going to take you up on it, some aren’t going to believe you mean it, but then there are some who totally overuse it.

Once they come through the door themselves or hear about one of their colleagues that have come through the door, it’s not that difficult.

Set a schedule, but remain flexible. Truly to be the most effective having a dedicated time for the open door is the best, but things come up on an emergent basis so you really have to be prepared for that.

I block off Friday mornings or Wednesday afternoons — that’s when I’m in my office doing some work, stop by or make an appointment with my secretary or whatever is best for you. But I don’t want to discourage people from coming to me on an emergent basis either.

That happens a lot. That’s where you have to use your judgment depending on what the issue is.

Work with your assistant to say, ‘OK, if this is something I can address immediately, and I’m doing something else, then tell them I will get back with them within this amount of time.’ Give them an idea that, yes, you will get back with them.

Make your policy clear. I make it clear to everybody that I’m not going to fix all of your problems, but if you’re coming to me to brainstorm or make me aware of a process that can be improved to make the organization run smoothly, then bring it on. They know they don’t need to come to me to tattle or gossip or whine because I don’t tolerate that. You need to go through the chain of command if any of that is going on.

The best thing to say is put a sign on your door that says no tattling, no gossip and no whining. You’ve got to be clear … (with) what you’re going to address as the CEO because generally the people that come to you are not going to be your management and leadership level because you talk to them all the time. The people who are going to come to you are going to be the front-line folks, and those are the people that need to know that I am not here to resolve the issue of somebody stealing your lunch out of the refrigerator.

I have people who come to me who complain about their managers, I’m like, ‘Look, you have a chain of command to go through.’ If you have an issue and unless it’s a terribly abusive situation, which generally it’s not, then you need to go through the chain of command.

Be careful not to undermine management. This can be an issue if it’s not handled delicately because truly if the management team is paranoid that their employees are coming to leadership with issues, then obviously we have a problem with management.

I struggle with not wanting to fix something that (employees) perceive as broken right then and there because I have the authority to do that, but then that does undermine management. So I have been very careful to let the process work (itself) out.

I have reassured management just because employees come to me they don’t need to be paranoid.

Meet employees in their own environment. It’s important to meet people where they are instead of where you are. I think that’s important both literally and figuratively.

Literally go to their place of work. It doesn’t have to be in the CEO office, which really frankly is more intimidating at times.

Then, figuratively meet them where they are. If an employee brings an issue to you and clearly it’s one that you don’t agree on as a leader, you have to listen to their side of the story and be respectful. Be open to changing your mind.

It’s more of a priority to go find out what’s going on in the field and with your employees than staying in your office. Sometimes our offices become our sanctuaries because it protects us from the outside, but you know all the work occurs outside of the office.

This is my greatest leadership challenge, wanting to fix something on the spot instead of letting others work through it and solve it on their own. It’s not because I think I have all the answers, I just want to make sure my folks are relieved of the stress of the process, but the process is valuable for them to work through.

You learn all that when you go out and meet them, not just when they bring the problems to you.

How to reach: Visiting Nurse Association of Ohio, (216) 931-1400 or www.vnaohio.org