6 actionable steps to becoming an open leader

Best practices for establishing trust and open leadership on your team.
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One of the most common challenges of open leadership is implementing its practices. If you speak to leaders about open behaviors, you will see their eyes glaze over. They know leaders should establish trust and be more transparent and collaborative with their teams. The question is not whether they should do these things, but how?

Leaders want to know the actionable steps to becoming an open leader. Becoming an open leader is not an overnight process. To help you get started, here are six open practices that every leader can begin implementing right now.

1. Host "ask me anything" (AMA) sessions with your team

An AMA is a forum where leaders answer questions from their teams. Questions can range from something easy, like your favorite breakfast food, to something more serious, like the business unit's strategic direction over the next two years. The duration of an AMA is flexible; you can conduct them over an hour or respond to questions over several days.

Hosting these sessions regularly will drive transparency and help leaders connect with employees. An AMA helps surface the team's questions and provides a forum to answer them. There are many ways to do an AMA session. You can host one in a town hall, conduct a virtual AMA using enterprise collaboration tools like Slack, or use social media channels like Reddit or even email listservs.

2. Share your personal performance reports

Being open about your performance can drive trust and transparency within your team. After you receive your performance report (annual or quarterly) from your upline, share it with your team. Highlight your areas of strength and, more importantly, areas where you need to improve. Invite your employees to help you improve on your weaknesses and build on your strengths. Sharing your performance lets your employees know that you are human, that you need their support to get better, and that you are actively trying to improve yourself.

3. Host retrospectives

A retrospective is a great way to connect and collaborate with your team by identifying what is going well and what needs to improve and ideating on potential solutions. If you host a retrospective at the end of every sprint or quarter, you will see huge improvements in your team's operations and results. Retrospectives also establish a meritocracy where the best improvement ideas win. If you have never hosted a retrospective, here is a simple approach:

  • Get your team together and provide an overview and objectives of the retrospective (~5 min.)
  • Collect their feedback on what has gone well over the past sprint or quarter (~10 min.) 
  • Gather their input on what needs to improve (~10 min)
  • Ask the team to ideate what needs to improve and generate improvement ideas (~10 min.)
  • Prioritize improvement ideas through voting and align on next steps and owners (~10 min.)
  • Finally, make sure you take action after the meeting. Your employees know that you have heard them; now, you need to demonstrate progress.

4. Send a weekly recognition communication to your team

At the end of every week, spend some time communicating the team's recent accomplishments. Your team will feel recognized and attain a better understanding of what behaviors are valued. Not sure how to start? Keep it simple; for example:

"Hazel did a wonderful job facilitating our cloud workshop this week. Harrison got great feedback from our client Jon Smith saying that he went above and beyond working over the weekend to finish a deliverable. Finally, shout out to Anne for preparing this year's engagement survey; I am looking forward to feedback from everyone. Thank you all, and have a wonderful weekend!"

These simple messages take only a few minutes of your time and will pay dividends with your team. This also provides an opportunity for you to reinforce the cultural values and behaviors you want the team to demonstrate.

5. Share the splats (failures) of the week or month

Open leaders encourage employees to fail fast, experiment, and share their lessons learned. Think about sharing your own failures each month, and encourage your team to do the same. Compile and communicate these splats in a meeting or an email each month. This helps employees understand that it is okay to fail and get some laughs along the way. Pro-tip: Make sure you always go first. Employees will be reluctant to do this at first, and they need to see that their leader is willing to share their failures.

6. Communicate frequently

Open leaders build connections with their teams. A good way to do this is by conducting regularly cadenced check-ins or, if you lead a large team, conducting virtual office hours or coffee chats. These communications can help drive culture. They also enable the leader to communicate (and reiterate) the organization's strategy, priorities, and values. These chats can also help build personal relationships and allow you to gather candid feedback on your team.

The key to all of these practices is consistency. Start with one or two, and make sure they become habitual for your team before moving to the others. If you begin implementing these simple practices, you will be well on your way to becoming an open leader.

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Benjamin Coglitore is a strategy and change consultant and has an 8-year track record of successfully leading organizations and their clients through large-scale transformations - from strategy to delivery. He is passionate about strategy, leadership, and culture change in tech.

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