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Tips for Becoming a More Approachable Leader

By Dan McCarthyDan McCarthy

While not a show stopper, or a de-railer, if completely ignored, there could have negative consequences that impact your effectiveness as a leader if you don’t improve your social skills.

What? How to be a more approachable, social leader? Who cares? What the hell does being warm and fuzzy have to be with being a great leader? And another thing… if it wasn’t for all these damn people we have to work with, we might actually get some work done.

Well, as it turns out, it does matter. While not a show stopper, or a de-railer, if completely ignored, there could have negative consequences that impact your effectiveness as a leader.

I know this from personal experience. Yes, I have a confession to make. I’m a flaming introvert. I’m that guy at the social function counting down the minutes, looking for a side door to quietly slip out un-noticed. I’m naturally reserved, don’t show a lot of emotion, think before I speak, and hate making small talk with people I don’t know very well.

I’m only coming out of the closet like this as an example of someone that’s learned to adapt their behavior to meet the needs of my career, family, and to be a better leader and person. It's a development need for me, and something I'm working on to improve.

It’s also hard for an extrovert to give advice to an introvert on how to be more approachable and sociable. It’s such a natural thing, and what works for them doesn’t always work for someone that’s the complete opposite.

In this case, I’m extremely qualified to give advice on something I suck at.

So what are the potential behavioral, or leadership implications for someone who’s a natural introvert, and/or somewhat reserved? If you’re not careful, you could:

- Be seen as someone who doesn’t listen to other’s concerns
- Have trouble working as a part of a team
- Not develop the social networks needed to be manage your career
- Be seen as aloof, or even arrogant
- Be seen as unenthusiastic about people or projects
- Have trouble in front of groups, making presentations
- Be seen as hard to read, and hard to trust

Yikes, would would have known?

In order to avoid these potential problems, here are 7 tips for all of you engineers, scientists, accountants, programmers, and managers that want to up your sociability game:

1. Smile.
For me, this was a learned behavior. I didn’t realize the negative effect I was have having on people until someone pointed it out. Once I started doing it (and it hurt), it had amazing results. No, you don’t have to have to be wearing a dumb grin all the time – just do it when you greet someone or pass them in the hallway.
Interesting cultural note: In Rome, Italians do not smile at strangers. It took me a couple days to catch on to this, they must have thought I was some nut-case.

2. Personal disclosure.
Share more about yourself. I’m not talking about sharing your thoughts around your latest theory on leadership – I mean personal information. Doing so helps build trust and relationships – it’s a bonding ritual. Caution – don’t overdo it initially – you’ll freak people out. Start with sharing some vacation pictures, or a story about your kids, or your dog, etc… Work your way up to it, and people will then start sharing information in return.

3. Increase your daily, weekly, and monthly interactions.
Make sure you’re talking (not emailing) to at least 3 people each day, and 15 per week. The next time you’re tempted to send that email to the person who works around the corner from you, get up and go talk to them. Or, pick up the phone and call. Keep your door open.
Have coffee or lunch with at least one person a month just to network, inside or outside of work. Remember to smile at least once. (-: ouch.

4. Have regular one-on-ones and team meetings.
In your one on ones, build in a little time up front for casual conversation. It helps to break the ice and build rapport. In addition to these regular, planned interactions, schedule informal lunch hours and an occasional off-site meeting. If you can, host a meeting at your home.

5. Improve your presentation skills.
Presentation skills are a learned skill – we can all get better with instruction and hard work. I’ve written about this before – presentation skills are a MUST for any leader.

6. Improve your listening skills.
Reserved leaders may come across as uninterested, or not listening, because they don’t show a lot of emotion or provide many visual cues. Practice nodding your head, making eye contact, sit up straight, ask questions, and check for understanding. Checking for understanding is especially important for someone who doesn’t always “read between the lines” very well, or pick up on emotions or feelings. After a meeting, check with others to see if they had the same understanding that you did.

7. Read a book on improving your workplace social skills.
Improving your approachability and sociability is going to take time. This blog post is just meant to get someone started. There’s plenty of comprehensive help out there, written by experts who have more experience and wisdom than I do.

Examples include:

- Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

- How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships

- Executive Charisma: Six Steps to Mastering the Art of Leadership

When it comes to personalities, we all have our natural preferences. There’s no cookie-cutter mold that we need to turn into to become effective leaders. “Strong, silent type” leaders can be just as effective as charismatic leaders.

However, it’s important not to use “that’s just the way I am” as an excuse for not addressing behaviors that are limiting your leadership potential.

Dan McCarthy has been a practitioner in the field of leadership development for over 20 years.

Posted May 1, 2010


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