One of my tasks this year has been to put together a TED/Do Lectures style afternoon of inspirational presentations for an audience of 600. My remit was broad; approach key figures from the business, sporting, entertainment, military and adventurous fields, asking them to reflect on their development as leaders. I was to ‘think big’ and try to attract household names.

Accessibility really struck me. Most key figures are shielded by organisational layers and ‘gatekeepers’ – they simply aren’t accessible unless you have a shortcut or an ‘in’. How many times have you heard people tell you they’re accessible? That their door is “always open”? Yeah, okay, maybe 1 or 2 above in your own organisation – perhaps even 3. My own bosses have always been really approachable, receptive and patient. In a hierarchy however, we never really have cause to access the tops.

In more than six months of planning and preparation I made a lot of approaches. Almost exclusively I was dealt with by gatekeepers, never actually speaking to the people I tried to reach. A significant, notable exception was the Virgin Group. I never spoke with Richard Branson (he seems the kinda guy who approaches you when he needs to). I did however, speak with the President of one of his companies. My call  – number withheld – was answered on the second ring. Not only was it answered, I was given a few minutes of valuable time to deliver my pitch. The timing of our event wasn’t great for the President, but he really wanted to engage, and he suggested I speak with his right-hand man, the Commercial Director.

Once again my call was answered, second ring. Once again I was gifted a couple of valuable minutes of time. After considering my pitch I was asked to wait 48 hours for a response – I got a ‘yes’ the next day and I got a fantastic speaker for our event.

Following the event I was able to spend a bit of social time chatting with our guests, discussing organisational differences. When I mentioned accessibility I got a real sense of culture and expectation – that being accesible and engaging were expected in the Virgin Group. The Commercial Director was actually appointed himself following an unexpected headhunting call from Richard Branson.

Virgin, as an organisation really struck me as being open to opportunity. Their approach has really made me think about my own practice; I don’t enjoy being interrupted by calls at work, and I don’t generally answer calls to my mobile from unrecognised numbers (I let them go to answerphone). Folk at Virgin would say “but what if that call’s important?”

Discussing approaches to leadership with an experienced group this week I mentioned my contact with Virgin. One of our group commented “well, that’s all well and good, but I’ve tried open door policies before and 2 minutes of my time to 50 people – whenever they want – soon becomes a burden …”

He missed my point. In six months I’ve spoken to only one organisation unique in its approach. I spoke to two of the most important people in that organisation; leaders of a truly massive project. Each was accessible, each picked up and gave time; they listened and considered – it seemed normal to them, not a burden. In fact, I really enjoyed our contact. It’s not something I’ll abuse – indeed, I actually have no real need to call them again.

My question for you is this: when was the last time you were truly accessible? Do you pick up? Why not? What might you miss – and what if someone like Richard Branson calls you one day? Finally, just because you might make yourself accessible, that doesn’t necessarily mean people will take advantage – it just means people can reach you when they need to – isn’t that kinda right?


One response to “Accessibility

  1. This is a really interesting line of thought.

    In academia, the most successful people ( = those with the biggest published research profiles) are usually the ones who close their doors — metaphorically or actually. My door is mostly open, though lately because I have so much work it’s been closed more than usual. I like open-door organisations (which we very much are). I find it quite difficult to imagine being in an environment where calls are routinely screened. However, this approach has done me no favours at all in my career. So that’s kind of interesting. I guess I’d rather be nice than successful?

    Phonecalls, I almost invariably pick up — especially if I’m at work and it’s an external call (two rings rather than one). Mine is a customer-facing position, after all.

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