An Apple employee once found himself alone in a lift with Steve Jobs, the CEO. Overwhelmed by the presence of the tech-world titan, he simply froze throughout the ride, so that by the time they parted only polite hellos had been exchanged. All who later heard of this incident were agreed that this was a lost opportunity for the employee, for many people look forward to such moments and consider that they should be seized to show your best side to the boss. Before him, though, the same experience had befallen scores of other employees not only at Apple but also at Ford, General Motors, and other world-renown companies. We should find it strange that one should freeze when so close to the sun and only thaw when withdrawn to a great distance.
Unlike the general public, I consider that the spectacle of a tongue-tied subordinate standing side-by-side with their (tongue-tied?) boss in cramped quarters should not be blamed on the subordinate at all. Leaders thrive on information, and so it is the responsibility of all leaders to appear approachable to all people who are potential sources of useful information. And when they find themselves with a lowly member of their staff who freezes under their gaze, it is their responsibility to break the ice and not to bask with morbid satisfaction in the withering effect that they exert on lesser souls. Who knows, perhaps the chance encounter could prove more beneficial to the CEO than to the junior officer if he could charm out of the latter bits of information that senior managers who report directly to him prefer to hush up or simply miss due to their failure to bridge communication gaps that stand between junior and senior staff.
I once came across a case where approachability may be the difference between life and death. I was taking my fitness walk along a lonesome road when I came across a car parked by a gate. As I walked by, a voice called out to me. It was an old acquaintance, and he was seated at the wheel. We exchanged a few pleasantries and made inquiries of each other about the years past. As I turned to leave, he reached out and grabbed my hand. “I feel tired,” he said, “and I would rather rest tomorrow, but I may have to take on a five-hour journey. I wish my boss could change his plans and we leave the day after.”
Only approachable bosses get to hear from their chauffeurs that they are too tired to drive. The rest learn from a police report that their tongue-tied chauffeur was overcome by fatigue when he ran off the road. I have no doubt that sometimes a few companies run off the road because the staff who would have given warning of impending danger found their CEO’s unapproachable.
(Author-poet Agona Apell is the author of The Success Genome Unravelled: Turning men from rot to rock)