A Day in the Life of an Approachable Leadership Workshop

A Day in the Life of an Approachable Leadership Workshop

Can you teach someone to be more approachable?

Almost every time I speak about approachability I’m asked some version of this question: “We’ve got several supervisors who are technically great, but terrible with people. Can you actually train someone like that to be more approachable?”

I’m happy to say the answer is yes. That’s what we do.

Look, we’re not sprinkling magic leadership dust on people. Some struggle more with approachability than others. And, of course, some refuse to do the work to change their leadership style. But we’ve seen some amazing transformations. If they’re willing to do the work, any leader can improve their relationships by working on the skills and behavior we teach in our workshops.

This often begs the next question: How? What specifically do we do during our workshops and follow-up training that builds new leader behavior?

In all of my evangelizing on Approachable Leadership, I don’t think I’ve ever provided a blueprint of an Approachable Leadership Workshop. Today, I’m fixing that. I thought it would be helpful to walk through a “day in the life” of one of our workshops to help folks understand exactly how we do what we do.

Here’s an outline of a typical Approachable Leadership Workshop. If you’ve been following us for any length of time, you should recognize many of the concepts. We break them down regularly on our blog. As you read through the outline, if a particular tool or piece of subject matter stands out to you, click on the link and it will take you to a post or page on our site that explains the idea a little further.



We kick off with our Everyday Leaders exercise. Here each trainee identifies an important leader in their own life. Most people choose an influential work leader, but it’s not unusual for someone to pick a parent, grandparent, sibling or teacher. We then ask them to reflect on the key behaviors that stand out about that person’s leadership (sometimes these are emotional – showing right away the power of being vulnerable with others). After discussing these behaviors, we then dramatically reveal how these behaviors relate to each trainee’s personal leadership. Finally, we encourage trainees to reach out to their leader and tell them, “I thought about you today when asked about an important leader in my life.” We often get feedback about the incredible conversations this simple act of gratitude triggers.


Next, we quickly go over the learning objectives for the day:

  • Learning Objective 1: Value approachability in life and work;
  • Learning Objective 2: Recognize approachable and unapproachable behavior in yourself and others;
  • Learning Objective 3: Learn basic skills and behaviors of Approachable Leaders;
  • Learning Objective 4: See approachability as a “practice” that applies in all relationships.


POWER DISTANCE: This section covers the foundational idea of Power Distance. We teach this section using poignant stories (each trainer brings in their own personal experiences, but when I teach I tell a story about my daughter). We show the Hofstede Power Distance Diagram to help learners visualize the idea. We then share the powerful story of the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 which learners will never forget. Our goal here is to create an emotional hook that builds the case for just how critical it is that leaders seek to shrink power distance with their teams. We vividly illustrate that this can be a matter of life or death.

TOOL: We introduce our Recognizing Gaps Tool and explain how learners can start using it right away (in fact, they get to use it during the next exercise!)

EXERCISE: Next, we do our popular Just Right Exercise (we’ve actually had strangers walk into our training room to find out what’s happening because people are laughing and having so much fun!) Our exercises need to be experienced in the moment so I’m not going to reveal all the details. But the key idea for this exercise is for learners to role-play what it feels like to behave in an unapproachable way and then what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an unapproachable leader. We later experience what it feels like to be with an inauthentic (overly nice) leader. Then we experience the same situation with a leader who handles things “just right.” This exercise gives learners very practical examples of right and wrong behavior that they can look back on as they reflect on the training and their own leadership.


MOTIVATION-ORGANIZATIONAL CITIZENSHIP: Before we dig into our first “pillar” of the Approachable Leadership Model we teach one other chunk of content on how people are REALLY motivated. This section introduces some powerful research on the importance of Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) and how Approachable Leaders drive these important behaviors every day.

TOOL: The tool for this section is our Approachable Leadership Model. This illustrates each of the three “pillars” of leadership and the important goal of increasing connection with your team.

OPENNESS-RIGHT SPACE: Here we teach the concept of leadership “curb appeal” and the importance of creating the right space with our team. Leaders share how they create space. To create an emotional hook for this section we learn about the terrible challenges of medical mistakes and how one simple “curb appeal” behavior saves hundreds of thousands of lives each year. We then learn the 4 magic words of leadership (sorry, not revealing them here – you’ll have to come to class to learn them J

TAKEAWAY-COMMITMENT: We close out the learning on Openness and Right Space (like we do with each “pillar”) with a takeaway and commitment exercise. Each learner identifies the key takeaway from this section of the learning and commits to take one action over the next month related to this section of the training. This is a key component of how the learning continues after the training session is over. Then we turn to the next “pillar” of the training.


APPROACHABILITY WINDOW: The next section of training contains two learning chunks I hear most often when learners reveal their top takeaways for the day. First, we teach the Approachability Window, which explains our simple model for growing solid relationships. Who knew that the legal principles for negotiating a binding contract could actually help someone remember the right way to connect with others?

EXERCISE: Learners love our Approachability Window exercise. During this experience each person quickly gets to give and receive feedback using what they just learned. Then there is a surprise “twist” to the exercise that ups the ante and really gives people a chance to up their approachability game. This is consistently rated as a highlight from the day.

TOOL: The tool for this section is our Approachability Window Cards. This deck of cards is what learners use to do the exercise. As a bonus, learners walk out of the room with these cards. They provide a great structured way to give and receive feedback from their teammates and even their boss.

STOP-LISTEN-CONFIRM: We next turn to one of the leading management thinkers of the 20th Century (and another surprising source of management advice who is NOT one of the leading management thinkers of ANY century). Here we learn our Stop-Listen-Confirm+Collaborate model for handling important conversations. Learners are taught an important “bran hack” that prevents leaders from jumping into “solve-it” mode too quickly. Many learners feel like this is the most practical, important tool they can start using immediately to improve relationships with their team (and their family!)

TAKEAWAY-COMMITMENT: We close out the learning on Understanding and Right Feeling with another takeaway and commitment exercise. Again, each learner identifies the key takeaway from this section of the learning and commits to take one action over the next month related to just this section of the training. Then we turn to the third “pillar” of the training.


FOLLOW-UP and FOLLOW-THROUGH: The learning content on the third “pillar” of Support and Right Action covers the 6 key areas for building an effecting follow-up and follow-through system. Learners are introduced to the concept of follow-up “rules and tools” and spend some time discussing their go-to rules and tools with each other.

EXERCISE: The exercise here is a brainstorm about “rules and tools” that learners rely on in their own system for execution. This robust discussion often gives learners the chance to see how some of their peers structure follow-up and follow-through in their own work lives. Often learners discover a handful of new rules and tools that they want to try in their own system.

TOOL: We then introduce the Action+Leadership Journal to learners, which is our own system for follow up and follow through. This Journal is another tool learners can consider adding to their system. Each learner already has one in their hands (the workbook they use during the training also contains an Action+Leadership Journal).

TAKEAWAY-COMMITMENT: You probably guessed this already, but we close out the learning on Support and Right Action with another takeaway and commitment exercise. Each learner once again identifies the key takeaway from this section of the learning and commits to take one action over the next month related to just Support and Right Action.


THREE QUESTIONS THAT WILL TRANSFORM YOUR LEADERSHIP (AND YOUR LIFE): We finish up the learning by teaching three simple questions (and the three key assumptions) that leaders can begin using the moment they leave the training. These questions will transform work and personal relationships. Through a quick series of poignant stories and eye-opening studies, we teach these three questions and assumptions:

  1. Do You Have What You Need? (Hero Assumption)
  2. What Would Make Work Better? (F-Word of Leadership, PITA Principle)
  3. What’s Next? (The Progress Principle)

In addition to learning the three questions, we teach how being more approachable will positively impact each person in the room. This is the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) segment of the training. We reveal research to learners about how they’ll make more money, live longer and happier, and even have a better love life if they become more approachable. While this is all done in a fun, tongue-in-cheek fashion, the research is real. This provides several more personal reasons a learner will want to put the lessons of the day to work in their lives.

TAKEAWAY-COMMITMENT: Before we complete the final takeaway and commitment exercise we hit learners with the cold, hard facts: many of them will forget what they learned today. That’s not the worst news. Even those who decide to try out some of their new skills are likely to get push-back from the teammates who might need an approachable leader the most. We do this to make sure learners truly commit to work on their key takeaway and not give up if things don’t go perfect out of the gate. Each learner then identifies their ONE key takeaway from the day. They can choose to work on more, but they COMMIT to the group that they will follow up on one key learning from the day.

FINAL WRAP UP AND SHARING TOP TAKEAWAYS: We finish the half-day workshop with each person sharing their top takeaway commitment. This is a great way to review all the key learnings (typically every key topic comes up at least once). It also creates a formal, public commitment so others can help hold you accountable.


I feel very lucky that I get to spend so much of my time spreading the message of Approachable Leadership. But nothing gets me as amped up as when one of our team is delivering the Approachable Leadership Workshop.

Being in an environment where we get to work side-by-side with leaders and help them overcome some of the challenges they face is a real gift. It is a privilege to see people connect these leadership concepts with their day-to-day leadership. We also know we are positively impacting every single person these leaders lead. That multiplier effect is a huge motivator for us. Plus, each new group of leaders come unique experiences that help us refine our own understanding of leading in today’s world.

Interested in learning more about our Workshop? Check out this page to learn more and to read some of the reviews we’ve received. Or better yet! Call me directly at 800-888-9115. I’d love to talk about how we can bring the Approachable Leadership Workshop to your crew.

3 Concepts to Step Up Your Active Listening Game

3 Concepts to Step Up Your Active Listening Game

Have you ever pulled an all-nighter?

When was your last all-nighter? It’s been a while for me – I’m too darn old. But this weekend my good friend Greg Hawks invited me to see Jack White in Dallas (thanks for the ticket, Greg!)

After the show we decided to drive back to Oklahoma City since I needed to be in Tulsa the next day. Long story short, I got about three hours of sleep. Before hitting the Turner Turnpike on my way home the next morning, I needed coffee.

In my sleep-deprived state I turned on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess podcast (yeah, I’m so dorky that a chess podcast keeps me awake!). Then I headed to Starbucks.

I approached a stoplight at the top of a hill when I realized I’d screwed up Greg’s directions. I grabbed my phone and pulled up the map. That’s when I heard the horn blaring behind me.

I looked up startled and checked my rear-view mirror. I was rolling backwards toward the panicked person who’d pulled up behind me! She honked just in time. Luckily, I soon got my Americano and the drivers of Oklahoma were once again safe.

As leaders we often find ourselves in similar situations at work. We’re tired. Stressed. We fool ourselves into thinking we can multi-task. Then we are confronted with a coworker who is dealing with a situation that requires our full attention. And instead of listening actively we start sliding backwards, just like my SUV on the top of that hill.

Active listening is essential. And hard.

Late last year Steve Parrish over at Farnam Street blog (highly recommended blog, by the way) wrote a thought-provoking piece on active listening. Parrish starts out with a quote by M. Scott Peck:

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

Have you experienced this? I have to catch myself all the time (not always with success). You know, things like:

“Let me just look up that one detail which totally pertains to what we’re talking about.”


“Oh yeah, I just have to finish this one line on this urgent email. I’ll just do that real quick and then I’ll be ready to talk.”

It’s these little “mindless” things that catch us. Because here’s the deal: they’re not mindless. Each demands a bit of our attention. We type our query into Google (ooh, look at that site on what I was searching for earlier today!). Then pick the right article (this one isn’t perfect, maybe one of those other 270,000 articles would be better). And then… well, you get the picture.

You cannot do two things at once.

Study after study proves that interruptions break up our focus and flow. It’s time we accept these interruptions destroy our listening game too. You either have time to give someone your complete attention or you don’t. Stop playing the middle ground. It’s not helping anyone.

3 Ways to Up Your Active Listening Game

One: Cognitive Bias and Selective Listening

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that effects the decisions and judgements that people make. Ever seen one of those crime shows where two witnesses remember the exact same event completely different? That’s cognitive bias at work.

Cognitive bias effects our memory. Two people remember the same event differently due to differences in how they “compartmentalize” the world around them. Each of our brains takes mental shortcuts or rules of thumb based on our prior experiences. This is useful. It is why we don’t have to re-learn how to drive a car every time we take the wheel.

However, like my stoplight experience shows, these shortcuts can get us moving the wrong direction. These memories can be categorized in ways that makes us pay extra attention to some information (the stuff that fits our mental model of the world) while ignoring things that don’t fit the model. Which leads to biased thinking and decision making.

Cognitive bias also leads to selective listening. We hear what we want to hear. We pay attention to the things that reaffirm our mental model and ignore things that don’t. Once we have enough information to affirm our mental model of the world our brains go, “OK, this fits the model. No need for more information.”

We all have cognitive biases and listen selectively. It comes naturally. If you want to up your active listening game the first step is to recognize how our brains can work against us.

This is why we teach the SLC+C “brain hack” in our Approachable Leadership workshops. The C in SLC stands for “confirm” (the other steps are “stop,” “listen” and “collaborate”). The point of the confirm step is to hijack your comfortable mental models and put you in a place that’s less certain. That signals to your brain “I have to pay extra attention here – this is different.”

Go to the original post. Parrish provides a great example of how this plays out in conversations between husbands and wives. Once you understand how this works, it’ll be hard not to notice when you do it. Or when others do it to you.

Two: It’s Not About YOU

There are a lot of narcissists in the world. And only the worst of them raise their hand when asked, “who here’s a narcissist?” They don’t see themselves that way. (Can anyone say cognitive bias?) So, I’ll ask you: Are you a narcissist?

Chances are you’re not a full-blown narcissist (after all, you’ve read this far in an article about how to listen better to others). But you can have a narcissistic response without being a full-blown narcissist. A lot of us do it. Notice how often you listen to respond. It usually goes like this:

You’re listening to someone. They say something that triggers an excellent point in your mind. You cling to it. You hold on to that point until it’s your turn to speak. My goodness you can hardly wait. And then the person talking stops to take a breath and you pounce! You drop your knowledge bomb on everyone and wait for the applause.

Whew! That felt good huh? You got to say what you wanted to say. Meanwhile, you didn’t really hear the last two minutes of what your partner was getting at. You might be able to repeat what he or she said. But you missed his point completely.

Fun fact: “The most frequently used written word in the [English] language is ‘the,’ but the most frequently spoken word is… ‘I.’”

Notice how often your response in a conversation begins with the word “I.”

Three: Write It Down

Why do therapists (and lawyers) almost always take notes when someone speaks? There’s a reason. Note taking not only cements an idea or thought into one’s brain. Notes also provide hard details to look back on later.

You wouldn’t necessarily whip out your notebook in a normal, casual conversation. But taking notes is something leaders can and should do when they’re having an important conversation with an employee or colleague.

It can sometimes take the person you’re speaking with a moment to get comfortable with the notebook. But it truly is a great tool to reaffirm for that person that you are listening, and that what they’re saying matters.

Taking notes is especially effective if you are using your other active listening skills, like asking clarifying questions and physically showing you are paying attention. Your notes also give you a concrete list of items you can refer to and repeat to make sure you’re understanding correctly.

The Approachable Leadership Way

Your door may always be open. You might be easy to talk to. And you may even be great at follow-up and follow-through. These are all great leadership traits (and critical pillars of being approachable). But they’re not enough.

If people don’t think you’re listening when they speak to you none of that other stuff matters. Anyone who doesn’t feel listened to, doesn’t feel understood; and that kills connection.

Just like a distracted or tired driver isn’t safe, neither is a distracted or unfocused leader. Active listening is the essential skill for leaders who don’t want to slide backwards in their conversations. I say skill because that’s what it is. Something you can learn, practice and improve.

If you’re interested in some more tips on how to improve your active listening skills download our Leadership Survival Toolkit to get our Active Listening tool. It identifies dozens of ways you can step up your active listening game. Get the toolkit here.

5,500 Copies and Counting!

5,500 Copies and Counting!

5,500 Copies and Counting! The Approachability PlaybookYou’ve probably read (or at least seen) The Approachability Playbook. Most readers of this blog own at least one copy (thanks!!!). Some have bought many copies for their teams.

I looked up our sales figures a few days ago and noticed The Playbook has shipped over 5,500 copies! I couldn’t believe it. Especially when only about 2 percent of books ever sell more than 5,000 copies.

We are so blessed around here and we are grateful for the amazing support of our followers and fans.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by my good friend Greg Hawks about The Approachability Playbook. It turned out to be a great introduction to the key themes and teachings around being a more approachable leader. Take a look:

What do you think about The Playbook. Hit the comments and let us know:

  • What is your favorite part of The Playbook?
  • How has approachability improved your leadership or life?
  • Is there another topic you think Phil should cover in his next book?

Let us know in the comments. Again, we appreciate every single one of you.

PS. If you’re so inclined would you mind sharing this post with your network? Now that I know we’ve cracked the 5,000 copy club I’ve started thinking about !0,000 🙂 Know someone who might enjoy a copy? You can take care of that right here.

4 Relationship Struggles that Indicate Your Employee Is Considering a Move

4 Relationship Struggles that Indicate Your Employee Is Considering a Move

Relationship struggles matter.

Do you ever “phone it in” in your relationships?

I’m pretty sure there’s an annual conference somewhere in Mexico each summer where marketing executives from the greeting card, candy, and flower companies get together. I imagine they have spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations all laying out this year’s plot to get a bigger and better share of the husband/father/wife/mother/son/daughter’s wallet each year. I have this vision most often in early February. Right before Valentine’s Day.

I know many couples agree not to celebrate these so-called “Hallmark” holidays. That sounds like a great plan on paper. After all, I love and adore my wife and kid every day of the year. So why make a big deal about it? Why drop a bunch of money on flowers that will be dead and on candy we’ll regret eating a week later?

Then I catch myself. Really? Is it too much to ask to take one day of the year and celebrate the most important relationships in my life? What kind of husband or father just gives the middle finger to his wife and kid on Valentine’s Day? This is the point where I imagine that the marketing executives in Mexico vigorously nod in agreement.

Then I do what every self-respecting husband or father does. I take the middle road. I phone it in.

For those of you born after 1980, “phoning it in” means calling someone when the appropriate response would be a face-to-face conversation. Today that’s “texting it in” or “tweeting it in” – but you get the idea. Phoning it in means performing something without enthusiasm. Doing the minimum amount required to say you did it. In a relationship, “phoning it in” is a signal that you’re taking things for granted.

The difference between “settling in” and “settling”

Not every second of every relationship is going to be a “highlight reel” moment. One of the best things about a long-term relationship with someone is there is less pressure to always be “on.” You can settle in. You feel safe and comfortable just being you and (thankfully) you don’t always have to be your best. However, there is a risk of getting too comfortable. You can take things for granted. Eventually you may forget all the things you appreciated at the beginning of the relationship, causing the connection to slowly slip away. In the worst cases people may feel like they “settled” in the beginning. This is when they start treating their partner with contempt.

There’s a guy – Joel Gottman – who can watch a couple talk for 15 minutes and tell you with about 85% accuracy who will still be married 6 years later. You know what he looks for? Signs of contempt. Nothing destroys a relationship with more certainty than contempt.

Now I’m not a marriage counselor and I’m not giving advice on marriage relationship struggles. But this dynamic plays out in all our relationships. At home and especially at work. We start a new job. Everything is fresh and exciting. Connections are strong. Energy is high. But it’s a lot of work. Eventually things settle in and get more normal. Natural. It’s not as exciting and unpredictable as when everything was new – but it’s also a lot more comfortable. Now comes the hard part: How do you know if you are losing the connection?

Do you remember Vanderbilt University Business Professor Tim Gardner’s study on behaviors that predict turnover? (Read our blog post on the 5 Performance Issues that signal turnover intention here.) You probably won’t be surprised that one of the key categories of behavior that predict whether someone is about to quit their job (and leave their relationship with their boss) is relationship struggles.

Here are 4 Relationship Struggles that Signal an Employee is Ready for a Change

One: Less interested in pleasing their manager

This is the “phoning it in” behavior, and it plays out more often than any of us realize. A member of your team feels “stuck.” They don’t enjoy what they do anymore. Maybe they’ve been in the same position for a few years now. The days run together. They’re in their own, real-life version of “The Office.”

They’re unhappy but they’ve also got a pretty good gig. It’s hard to leave when you know you can do the bare minimum and still keep your job. (Stay tuned for a discussion on this in a future blog post: What are you doing to make your employees feel like they don’t have to do as much?)

Employees who feel this way sometimes daydream about getting let go. There’s a glimmer of freedom on the other side. It’s exciting to imagine doing something new or working with someone different. Whether that’s reality or not doesn’t matter. Our lives are what we imagine them to be. Fire them or don’t fire them. One thing’s for sure, they’re not worried about it.

If you have an employee that is visibly less interested in staying in your good graces, you have a problem. It could be that the pastures are greener elsewhere. But most of the time that longing isn’t really about a new company or a new team. It’s about a lack of connection and excitement about what they’re doing now. You really don’t want to lose this person. She wants more and she’s not getting it here. You can either identify ways for her to learn and grow here. Or watch her attitude and performance slide right up until she tells you she’s found a better job.

Two: A negative change in attitude

Consider how you felt the last time you started a new job. Excited. Anxious. Here lies a fresh opportunity to be whoever you want to be. We love that don’t we? Opportunities to redefine ourselves. Of course, these opportunities can also come with a bit of nerves. We want our new coworkers to like us. We want to feel a part. In a word, we care.

Now jump back to the last time you wanted to quit a job. You weren’t worried about impressing anyone. In fact, by this time, you probably have a coworker or two that you’d just as soon never talk to again.

From daily processes to company culture, people that are invested in your organization get excited about opportunities to make things better. Those who have one foot out the door see the down side of everything. And misery loves company.

Three: Expressed dissatisfaction with their supervisor

This one is different than the first signal on this list. Your teammate moves from “phoning it in” to outright contempt. Not only do they not care about impressing you, but now they’ve concluded you are the problem. They’ve decided and said (to their teammates and perhaps even to you) one of two things:

  1. They don’t like you.
  2. You’re doing a bad job.

You’ve probably felt this way about a manager. We all have. But, since you wanted to keep your job, you kept it to yourself. If you start hearing complaints like these, your coworker is at the end of their rope. Expressed dissatisfaction is a tell-tale sign your team member is on the way out.

This is an urgent situation. Check out our recommendations for corrective action below.

Four: Shown less interest in working with customers

Have you ever walked up on a conversation one of your team members was having with a client and thought, “Oh no. That’s not good.”

We have to keep our customers happy. I’m no math genius, but this equation I understand: No customers = no business.

But I don’t subscribe to the belief that “the customer is always right.” Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a business opportunity to stand up for a valuable teammate. That’s not the situation I’m talking about here.

Instead, I’m talking about a member of your team who seems to have stopped caring about the customer experience. Their contempt for the company or their manager has turned into contempt for the customer. This is unacceptable. It’s also a tell-tale sign of a larger problem – they just don’t care anymore.

What to do when you’ve noticed one of these 4 relationship struggles

You’ve spotted one or more of the relationship struggles. What do you do now? First, acknowledge that this person might be considering a move. Then ask yourself, do you want them to stay?

Did you answer yes? Then you have some work to do. Start by sitting down with them and having a real conversation. This shouldn’t feel like a performance review. Don’t just squeeze it in. Consider changing the scenery – maybe take them out to lunch. Remember power distance. Any time you are discussing something like a change in attitude or performance, you immediately raise the idea “am I about to get fired?” Even if your employee has daydreamed about their next job, very few people look forward to getting fired. People are often much more willing to speak freely when you step outside of the environment where you are clearly in a higher power position.

By the way, one of the relationship struggles is feedback about your performance. Practice being vulnerable and asking for honest feedback about how you’re doing. Make sure they know you want their honest opinion.

Next step, listen. What’s going on with them? Personally? Professionally? Dealing with any frustrations at the office? Anything I can do about it? What can I do better as your boss? Do you enjoy the work you’re doing?

Ask these (I’ll be honest) not-so-simple questions. And then sit back. Really listen. Try to understand. Share experiences where you may have felt the same way.

Not only does a scenario like this work wonders toward giving you a better perspective of what your team members experience at work. It’s also a relationship game-changer. Nothing replaces one-on-one time. Nothing makes a person feel more important or valued.

What if you answered no?

If you answered no, my advice is the same. Have a conversation. Ask them the same questions. Except this time, when they say they are unhappy in their current situation, acknowledge that it might not be the best fit. Offer to help them make a change.

Don’t shy away from the subject. Again, acknowledge power distance. They may not want to talk about it or fear you will push them out. Help them understand that you want what’s best for them long-term. That might be outside the organization and that’s OK. Even if you mutually decide that their future is outside the company, you’ll often be surprised at the performance improvement you see while they are looking for that greener pasture.

As a leader your goal is to keep a strong connection in your long-term relationships. Approachability is all about growing and maintaining strong connections with others. (Our leadership model is called the “Connection Model” for a reason!) So make sure you are constantly looking out for these signs of relationship struggles. When you spot them, do what you can to connect.

Relationships are hard. Especially when we’ve all got work to do. But take the time to look at how your people interact with each other. Notice how they interact with you. Hopefully, you feel good about your organization’s culture and the people you have creating it. But don’t be surprised if one of these 4 relationship struggles show up. Recognize it. Then dive in. Your team will thank you.

Larry Nassar: What Leaders Should Take Away

Larry Nassar: What Leaders Should Take Away

What can the Larry Nassar trial teach us about leadership?

Larry Nassar has been sentenced to a total of up to 360 years in prison for child pornography and the sexual abuse of more than 250 girls and young women over the last two decades.

As the father of a 14-year-old daughter – who resembles in so many ways all the women abused by Nassar – I cannot tell you how glad I am to see justice served on this horrible person. I don’t support the death penalty, but I’d make an exception for this guy.

I had a long talk with my daughter about Nassar (and some of the recent #MeToo revelations). We discussed what happened and how it happened. How these girls (and boys) shared so much in common with her. How someone you respect or trust can take advantage and turn it into something awful. How important it is to let her mom and me know anytime she feels uncomfortable or unsafe around someone. Not my favorite talk I’ve had with her, but one of the more important.

I want to protect my daughter. One way I can do that is to teach her to be situationally aware. Look out for horrible people like Nassar. While this feels like good advice, it also doesn’t feel quite right. Like I’m saying it’s up to her to avoid abuse. Or that these victims are to blame for getting abused.

Don’t blame the victims

I am an optimist and a glass-half full person. Looking for sexual predators around every corner makes for a pretty bleak world. And the reality is (thankfully) that the Nassar’s and Weinstein’s and Sandusky’s of the world are the rare exception. But it is not the victims of abuse that are to blame. It is the cultures these abusers find or create. Cultures that give them private access to potential victims. Cultures that make reporting abuse unlikely. Cultures that won’t take complaints seriously or respond appropriately.

As leaders this is where we MUST focus: the cultures we create. On the heels of the Nassar trial attention has turned to this question. What could school administrators, the Olympic gymnastics organization, and the investigators themselves have done different? What sort of culture allowed this abuse to start and continue for so long?

But it’s not just “those” administrators. When I look at myself in the mirror I ask: Would I have asked the right questions? Would I have brushed away something that didn’t seem quite right? Would I have spoken up or forced others to investigate? Would I have created the kind of space where a victim felt safe and comfortable sharing their pain? That’s the true culture question.

I want to focus on what leaders and HR professionals should consider in the wake of the Nassar trial and as the #MeToo movement continues to unfold. I believe there are two main takeaways.

One: What kind of culture do you create?

Culture is another buzzword du-jour. I don’t know about you, when some expert starts talking “culture” I often have to catch myself before I roll my eyes. “What more is there to say?” People wonder.

While discussing culture can get tiresome, you can’t overstate its importance. Especially in situations like this. Culture determines what is allowed, encouraged or rejected. If you don’t fit the culture you won’t last long. And if you do you won’t leave. That’s why it is so critical to get culture right. It either reinforces good behavior or encourages bad.

As I listened to the testimonies of Nassar’s victims, one thing struck me most. He carefully crafted an environment where he could abuse his position of power. But he didn’t (and couldn’t) do this alone. It was perpetuated not only by him, but through the massive negligence of others.

This ESPN article gives a glaring insight into just that. Rachael Denhollander, one of the Nassar’s victims, put it like this:

“The culture of enabling is absolutely vital to why pedophiles flourish…You don’t get someone like Larry Nassar, you don’t get a pedophile who is able to abuse without there being a culture surrounding him in that place. Until we deal with the enablers, this is going to continue to happen.”

This begs the question, what does your culture enable? What are you enabling? I know the Nassar example is extreme, but it is a reality. His behavior continued for twenty years. And over the course of those twenty years, many people had many chances to stand up and say, “enough!” To force a serious investigation. To stand up to Nassar and the many others who enabled his behavior. And they didn’t.

My advice?

Pay attention to the small things. The micro-cues that something’s not quite right. The unstated but felt discomfort. When you catch an eye roll or uncomfortable body language, make note. If you overhear a discontented comment, don’t blow it off. Dig a litter deeper. Does someone seem down? Ask them what’s up.

Leaders matter more than we realize. Yes, our technical skills are important. But our most important role is setting the tone and helping others understand the kind of culture we have (and the kind we don’t have).

Culture isn’t some poster on a wall. It is how we treat each other every day. What we allow, encourage, and reject. And that’s all about people. As leaders we must fully care about our people and truly listen to them. Create a safe space where they feel comfortable telling us the good, bad, and ugly about their lives at work and outside of work. When we do that, our teammates will treat each other the same way. And no Nassar, Sandusky or Weinstein can survive in that culture.

Two: How prevalent is power distance at your organization?

Shrinking “power distance” is the goal of Approachable Leadership. Power distance is the very thing that keeps leaders in the dark. In our workshops we show how plane crashes and medical mistakes often start with power distance. It’s brought down companies like Nokia. It is the primary culprit in scandals like the one at Volkswagen last year.

Power distance also played a huge role in Nassar’s scheme to abuse his victims.

From the same ESPN article (emphasis mine):

“Geddert’s [USA Gymnastics Head Coach] coaching style was largely based on fear and intimidation…[He] and Larry were like this perfect storm…You become so unapproachable that your own gymnasts don’t feel comfortable telling you what’s going on. There’s no way any of the girls would have felt comfortable saying anything to John [about Larry]. Kids were terrified of him.”

Power distance at its worst.

Now, would John Geddert have stopped the abuse if he knew what was happening behind the scenes? It’s hard to say. One would hope so. But then again, some argue that he must have known something was going on and never said anything. Either way, we’ll never know. No one ever actually told Geddert.

They were too scared. Geddert was the one with all the power. There’s the power that comes with being an older man working with young girls. The power with being bigger, stronger and louder than everyone else. And the power of being placed in a position of authority – the power to make or break the careers of these aspiring athletes who knew he was their ticket to Olympic stardom.

This is how it works. It’s that simple. Leaders hold the power. And you are either the kind of leader that listens with empathy when someone needs to talk  – or you’re not. And if you’re not, then no one is talking to you.

What to do next

Hold your people up. Let them know you value them. Encourage them to be their best self. Make sure they know they can come to you with bad news or when things aren’t going well. Ask them for honest feedback and accept it.

You can do all this by being an active participant in the community you create with each other. Make some time to hang out. Pop in for a visit here and there. Be on the lookout for things like:

  • Mitigated speech. Are your employees direct when they speak to you or do they beat around the bush? Do they seem comfortable stating their opinion? Do they quickly defer to you?
  • Evasive behaviors. Do they avoid eye contact and keep a physical distance? Do they seem uncomfortable and fidgety? Do they hang around or beat it as soon as they can?

These are two of the most tell-tale signs of power-distance. Actively look for them. They’ll show up. And this is good news! It is your chance to show your team the type of culture you want to create. And it is the only way to make sure predators like Nassar have nowhere to hide.