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Spread too thinly? Here’s how to be more available

We all know that getting out there – really talking to your people, is the best way to encourage safer behaviour and all the success that naturally follows. But even with the best will in the world, you’ve still got too many other competing priorities.

We see this all the time with our clients at Tribe. The reality is busy leaders like you can’t spend your whole life pressing the flesh and solving other people’s problems – even if it is a significant (and enjoyable) part of your job.

You simply can’t be available for all your staff, all the time.

Or can you?

Matt Riley, consultant at Tribe, formerly of NATS (UK air traffic control) and Dubai Air Navigation Services, believes it is possible. In this interview, he suggests smarter ways to project your limited availability, and empower staff so they make fewer demands of your time.

It all comes down to trust, confidence, planning and communication. Here’s Matt’s advice:

Should leaders always be available to their staff?

“Think about it this way: as kids, we rely on our parents to be around whenever we need them. But as you get older you get more independent – confidence comes from not having parents visible everyday in your life, but knowing you can lift the phone anytime and call them, and they’ll be there right away. You know they’re backing you, right there behind you and that gives you the confidence to go out into the world and make your own way. That inspires you to do things in a certain way, to make your own mistakes and learn from them.

“The same goes for the parents. They don’t phone you everyday, asking if everything is OK. They’re not ‘unavailable’, they just know it’s not their responsibility to be by your side 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re just there if you need them because they’ve invested time and effort in raising you.

“This is the leadership model we should aspire to. There’s a trust thing going on: you have confidence in each other filling complementary roles. In an organisation that means leaders like you being there for your staff – looking after and rewarding them, as much as they’re there for you – doing high quality, profitable work.”

So there’s a distinction between ‘availability’ and being physically available or visible?

“The challenge is to get people to the point of believing that you’re there if they need you, even when you’re not there – that you’re on their side, that you’re all working towards the same goals – even with different priorities.

“When the right level of trust and confidence is there, people won’t fight for your attention or bombard you with requests. Likewise, leaders don’t need to monitor people and harass them about mistakes.”

How do you create the right trust and confidence?

“For me this doesn’t happen by accident, it’s planning. You have to plan it. The best leaders I’ve worked with in air traffic management are those that actually plan when they’re available amongst their other commitments. Even with multiple global sites, I’ve seen leaders go and visit every facility. They make sure everyone at every level has their chance, at least once a year. Even if not everyone takes advantage of that, you’ve symbolically been physically available at least once.

“It might be the hardest few weeks of your life visiting three continents, but it actually makes you more available and frees you up in the future.

“I see it more as a communications challenge. If you lead with authenticity, build trust and keep people informed, you don’t always have to be physically visible to people. The key is in judging when you have to front up and when you don’t. If you are with people during the tough times they will trust you during the good times, and in most businesses there tend to be many more good days than bad.

“It takes time to create trust, but with a high level of commitment upfront I have found that people then don’t feel the need to see you in person, they just need to know you care, and that if they do need something from you, they know how to get that.”
What message should you be telling staff when you’re available but not physically there?

“Messages like ‘this is where we are, this is we’re going’ – honest, upfront news about the business. Even if it’s ‘there’s nothing to tell’ or ‘sorry I can’t answer that’ or even bad news – that still sends the right message. Often, people just want to know what those in charge are thinking when they’re not there, because you hold their future in your hands.

“The other side of this is you have to tell people what you’re doing. There’s value in company blogs and newsletters – people need to know what’s going on, that you still care. It could be as simple as five bullet points saying where you are, where you’ll be next, what you’re doing there and what that means for people on the ground. Just a frequent, handful of carefully crafted lines can make you more available, without you actually having to be more physically available.”

Can you give an example of what this looks like, done well?

“One guy I worked for, you always felt as though he was available, even though he wasn’t really. Every month, at a set time, there’d be a short gathering – he’d make people feel good, he’d tell them what’s going on in other parts of the business, plans for the future.

“Most importantly though he drew links between different people in different parts of the business, so every individual felt connected. Focusing on that influence each one of us has on the wider business is empowering, and makes people feel like they matter. That’s reassuring and again builds trust and confidence.

“In Dubai, one leadership technique I replicated was giving public recognition to one or two people who’d gone above and beyond what’s required. Tell their stories. Just that prospect of individual recognition from a leader, is a powerful thing for building trust and confidence.”

How long does this take?

“That depends on influence, your personal leadership style: months, maybe years? You get out what you put in, but once you’ve built that initial trust and confidence everything becomes easier and far more manageable. When people know what you’re up to, and that letting you get on with that is in their best interests, they aren’t so bothered if they can’t see you.

“You must maintain that, with good communication – a newsletter for example, and keep that up. Follow up on what you’ll say you will – show them you keep your promises. But also remind people that if they need help – these are the channels, the lines of delegation, and if there’s a crisis – here’s how to get through.

“This is about maximising the value of how practically available you can be. Then using that time to build trust and confidence. That then frees you up to do all the other important things leaders have to do, not least steering your business.

“When your leader can’t be there, you need to know they’re away fighting for you. When you know that, you feel more inclined to fight for them.”

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