Open Door, Empty Chair
By Mike Masterson
“The doors of today’s leaders are always open. They are open so we can go out….”1
As law enforcement leaders, we stay busy with various meetings and other events, countless e-mails, and many crises that can distance us from employees. We must make our personnel more of a priority.
To become more accessible to their employees, many leaders institute an “open door” policy, encouraging personnel to stop by anytime to talk about important work issues. This sounds plausible in theory, but proves difficult in practice because we may lack availability, expect rigid adherence to the chain of command, or have an office setup that does not facilitate conversation.
In today’s rapidly changing environment, leaders need to leave their desks and engage with their employees while “leading by wandering around” (LBWA).2 This new phrase differs from the similar concept of “management by walking around,” made popular by the corporate world in the 1980s, because policing extends beyond our workforce to the community.
LBWA allows communication to occur among personnel at all levels regarding how well the organization fulfills its mission and where to improve. It gives employees—who do the work and provide the services—a voice and boosts their morale. Additionally, LBWA allows us to treat our personnel the way we want them to handle those we serve; then, they can mirror our behavior when dealing with the public.
Our personnel hold great importance and deserve our focus. They need to know that we care about them both personally and professionally. Employees understand that leaders give attention to the people they have the most interest in; we must remember this when practicing LBWA.
Whether we lead 10 employees in a single building or hundreds in decentralized offices, we can demonstrate genuine care for them. We may not have equal time to spend with every group, but, to ensure fairness, we should try to visit all areas of the organization throughout the year.
Leaders do not need to follow a specific rotation. We simply can block out a portion of our schedule and commit it to visiting a work unit in advance or leave it open for plans made later. Either way, we should notify our command staff so they will not be surprised.
We also can ride along with an officer or supervisor. As a new chief, I spent a considerable amount of time with a patrol leader. Not only did I learn the city’s geography and prominent landmarks but I also acquired an informed perspective of what frontline workers experienced.
When we encounter employees, they often will engage us with a question, like “What brings the boss here?” This provides an icebreaker, as well as an opportunity for us to ask how things are going and convey our desire to witness the work done in the organization.
Leaders should approach slowly and focus on employees’ personal lives, if they know them. Otherwise, we must avoid asking questions potentially seen as intrusive. The more often we practice LBWA and become familiar with our personnel, the easier such discussions become.
We can begin by asking employees a few basic questions: Have you found a satisfactory work/life balance? Do you have specific career goals? What is best about working for this organization?
However, LBWA goes further than visiting, making simple inquiries, and offering pleasantries. Leaders need to ask the right questions, then listen attentively and deeply. Done right, the process provides a list of metrics that every leader should use to evaluate the organization.
- Efficiency and effectiveness of services: Do we have systems in place that accomplish what our agency and citizens need? How well do people work together in and among work units? What do we do best? Where can we improve?
- Interactions with citizens: Are we treating people with dignity and respect?
- Officer safety protocols: Have we held to our policies and training?
- Workplace improvement: Do we give our personnel a say in how we deliver services? How can we help ensure their success?
- Core values: Are employees exhibiting the agency’s principles through professional service and care for all citizens?
- Recognition: Which types of rewards and recognition should we offer? What motivates personnel to do their best work? How can we encourage employees to offer more peer input on promotions?
- Rumor mill: Does harmful misinformation flow through the organization?
- Needed changes: What would personnel like to see changed in the department?
Soon after becoming chief, I changed existing practice and insisted on personally taking my assigned work vehicle to the city-owned garage for routine maintenance. I wanted to emphasize that my time held no more importance than that of others. Moreover, I needed to get out and talk with my people.
I arrived early and became the first customer. A comfortable spot in the mechanics’ break room allowed me visibility, and I chose not to immerse myself in paperwork or other activities that would discourage others from engaging with me. Soon, workers flowed through to get coffee or place their lunches in the refrigerator, and I gave them a simple greeting, like “How are things going?” This led to more technical conversation.
These impromptu meetings uncovered valuable information about the condition of our fleet and the management systems that guided operations. I learned that employees routinely brought in their vehicles for customized and expensive modifications. To complicate matters, they made some of these visits unannounced and requested urgent service because of “the important work they do.”
Further, the foreman offered a valuable suggestion: Ordering new vehicles prewired would prevent the expensive and time-consuming task of preparing them for the electronic equipment they require. He mentioned that purchasing the cars this way would not only save the department time and money but also place them in service faster.
A police chief in a large city told me that he likes to drive a squad car and join his officers on patrol. One New Year’s Eve, he chose an unused vehicle and transferred his gear to the front seat. The mobile data terminal did not work. He entered a second car, only to discover that the battery had died. A third vehicle had a headlight out. Finally, a fourth car—an older model—was fully functioning. The frustrated chief discovered that his officers lacked the resources they needed to do their job.
Leading by Walking Around
- Wear the uniform.
- Do it alone, often, and randomly.
- Avoid preoccupation with mobile devices.
- Occasionally visit at obviously inconvenient times (e.g., early morning, late night).
- Include civilians.
- Invite new ideas and candid feedback.
- Most important, actively listen.
This leader recognized that personnel must have working, dependable equipment and that morale can suffer otherwise. That night, he contacted the fleet manager to notify him of the experience and express that he expected better. He also made changes to the management of the fleet system to ensure accountability.
Leaders also should go to patrol briefings, showing up early and checking in with the supervisor leading the meeting. By attending, we can hear about calls officers handled the prior day, rather than read a short synopsis in the daily bulletin.
On one occasion, I witnessed a discussion regarding a call officers handled involving an allegedly suicidal military veteran. His girlfriend had contacted the department to report that he took three aspirin. Unhappy with the police presence, the veteran made an apparent threat regarding any return visits. This prompted the officers and their supervisor to discuss a tactical response plan should they encounter this situation again.
I used this opportunity to speak to them about handling such calls strategically. Subsequently, the agency recruited a group of committed volunteers with combat experience who assist with contacting family members of veterans in crisis. The program has proven successful in the community, showing that leaders can improve officer safety and quality of services delivered by talking to their personnel.
“In today’s rapidly changing environment, leaders need to leave their desks and engage with their employees….”
Another chief mentioned that he attends such briefings as often as possible. Recently, he asked his personnel about services that provide little or no value to the public. They complained about an administrative update requiring an unnecessary and time-consuming report for every traffic accident. Previously unaware of the change, the chief immediately had the order rescinded. Had he not met with these employees, he would not have known about the additional burden.
Visits to specialty personnel also hold importance. I once went to see my detective unit and received updates on a joint investigation with the FBI. This intriguing case involved a 92-year-old woman—a Holocaust survivor—facing harassment by phone and computer. My officers and their federal counterparts eventually solved this complicated case, despite calls and servers used domestically and internationally to mask the source.
I also witnessed the dedication of my staff. Investigators—concerned for the victim’s safety—requested the installation of a portable alarm in her home. The detective responsible for that task was off-duty and skiing at a nearby mountain, but he left early, reported to the station, and set up the alarm to ensure the woman felt secure. Additionally, officers instituted extra patrols near her residence.
The woman kept a fishbowl full of business cards from officers who checked on her safety over the course of several weeks. Later, during her final days, she placed pictures of the agents and officers at the foot of her bed as a reminder that people truly cared. Indeed, members of my organization lived out our mission and values in their contacts with this woman. I may not have learned of this by waiting for people to walk through my open door.
“Effective, caring leaders…actively venture into the organization and community to listen.”
Potential Consequences of Poor Leadership
A friend of mine, while conducting interviews in a small Midwestern police department, spoke with the property clerk, whose office was located near that of the chief. She complained that he never had come to her office and presumably did not know how his agency handled property. The disgruntled clerk noted that a lost piece of evidence could jeopardize the chief’s job. Yet, he did not know her or what she did. By practicing LBWA, this chief could not only have a happy, productive employee but also potentially protect himself.
LBWA also works exceptionally well with community members. One chief of a large urban department recounted that he likes to venture out on his bike during a Friday or Saturday morning. He takes a radio, visits with at least three or four officers, and, most important, speaks with numerous citizens.
The chief goes downtown to talk with the homeless population and then alternates between neighborhoods. Often, he finds people at sidewalk cafés, local parks, and in their yards. He does not advertise his rank and only shares it after conversations. LBWA allows him to gain a citizen’s perspective on the department’s effectiveness and what problems police should address in different areas of town.
Effective, caring leaders leave the comfort of their office to actively venture into the organization and community to listen. Rather than see the open door as an opportunity for others to visit us, we should consider it an invitation to go out and interact with personnel where they perform the work so we can ask how to improve.
While reading books or professional periodicals always benefits us, leading by walking around can provide an enriching learning experience that helps us connect with people and become better leaders. Further, we can build a culture of engagement and inspire other leaders to leave their offices, as well.
Mr. Masterson can be reached at email@example.com.
1 David C. Couper and Sabine Lobitz, The New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police: Improvement and Leadership Models for Police (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 104.
2 For additional information, see “Leadership by Wandering Around,” 3x5 Leadership, December 12, 2016, accessed April 4, 2019, https://3x5leadership.com/2016/12/12/leadership-by-wandering-around/; and Fred Leland, “Leadership by Wandering Around!” Law Enforcement Security Consulting, Inc., accessed April 4, 2019, http://www.lesc.net/system/files/Leadership+By+Wandering+Around+finaldraft.pdf.