When Is An Open Door Not An Open Door?

Six months after I left active duty with the US Air Force, I was thrilled to be hired by Wal-Mart into a leadership role in their Logistics division. I had operated as a leader in smaller groups in the USAF and could not wait to apply my military experience into a civilian career. Everything looked good – except for that pesky Open Door policy that Wal-Mart was committed to…

I was used to leading within the context of the military’s Chain of Command structure – the very real expectation and practice that a service member would engage with every level of leadership before consulting the next higher level. Got a problem? Try resolving it at the lowest possible level. Didn’t work? Take one step up. Repeat. In contrast, Wal-Mart (as many civilian organizations) operated with an Open Door policy. Any Associate in the company could engage any leader, at any level, at any time.

When Sam Walton was still alive, he kept a published phone number for his home in Bentonville, Arkansas – and was accustomed to getting calls from Associates at any hour, day or night. That is truly the definition of an Open Door. And that is a world apart from a Chain of Command.

I’m not debating or comparing the relative merits of one system over another. In fact, I ask you, my reader, not to engage in that debate yourself. Instead, I pose this question to a practicing or potential leader:

Do you adapt to your organization – or are you expecting it to adapt to you?

I’ve written before (many times!) about my good fortune working for great leaders. One of them, JL, told me once that you hire a leader based on what you need as a leader for that team. Seem overly pat? I trust him – he’s a smart guy and an effective leader. I watched him lead a large organization through significant change – and do so with integrity and poise.

My challenge was to decouple the familiar patterns of my background – a chain of command – from the role that that my new employer wanted me to fill – which included supporting an Open Door policy. I struggled with the change – until I accepted the fact that where I was operated differently than where I used to be.

In the end, I found success operating as a leader for my new employer. I worked through a cultural adaptation – on my part. And, most satisfyingly, when I hired a retired Senior NCO from the US Marine Corps a year later, I smiled when he said, “Open Door? They don’t have to go through me first?”

“Nope,” I replied. And then I was privileged to watch B translate his leadership skills to a new environment. And – by the way – his folks were better off for his adaptation.

So if you’re working in a leadership role or – even more importantly – contemplating a move to a leadership position in a new organization, can you recognize how you may need to adapt your leadership style? I sure hope so.

Your people are counting on you!

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2 Comments

Filed under Essays

2 responses to “When Is An Open Door Not An Open Door?

  1. navarro

    i just discovered your blog a few days ago and i’ve been going back through your earlier posts. this one struck a chord with me. i’ve been teaching for 20 years now and i’ve worked for 6 different principals and 5 different superintendents in that time. sometimes we get teachers who have retired from the military or the business worlds and i’ve noticed that the ex-military typically deal with the transition much better than the former business folks. i wonder if the whole chain of command aspect is a major factor in that because schools typically function in a strict chain of command fashion. you handle any problems at the lowest level needed and you exhaust resources at one level before you move it up to the next. this is true whether you’re dealing with student discipline, faculty discipline, or faculty grievances. i’ll stop there since i’m about to start rambling but thanks for giving me a new way of thinking about things.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Personally, I expect a leader to be able to operate in any kind of organizational environment. I had to learn that the hard way myself, though, and the process was exhausting. The lesson — and the ability to adapt — has been essential for me ever since.

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