I met Mike Shanahan a few years ago when he first arrived in the DC area to be the new coach of the Washington Redskins.  My husband and I were taking our early evening walk and were on the final leg walking back to our driveway.  A car pulled into the driveway two doors down from our house and a man I didn’t recognize got out of the car, waved with a smile, and began walking towards us.

My husband had an awestruck look on his face, as though the man was quite familiar to him, while I must admit, I was clueless to his identity.  (I’ll explain what I think is a good reason for my ignorance a bit later). He approached us, still smiling, and stuck out his arm to greet us both with a strong handshake.

“Hi–Mike Shanahan,” he began.  “I’m your new neighbor.  We’re renting this house for awhile while we settle into the area.”

My husband introduced us both and welcomed him, with an unusual smile and look on his face.

“Where are you moving from?” I asked, still sincerely not knowing who this man was and oblivious to his stature in the NFL.

(Okay, so I grew up in Athens, Greece, and we followed soccer and the World Cup was our Super Bowl, so I never developed an affinity or interest in football—that’s my lame excuse).

He didn’t miss a beat, explained that he was moving from Denver and was looking forward to assimilating into the new community.  He was warm, friendly, gracious, and down-to-earth as we exchanged some more small talk and then went back into our respective houses.

In the following months for the year he lived in that house, he would always roll down the window and greet us by name as he drove by, even when he was in a hurry, being driven by a driver to a game or the airport or wherever else NFL coaches get driven to.  What struck me about him was that he always paused and made an attempt to reach out to us first.  He made the first move and attempt to connect with us, removing the discomfort he knew people felt about whether to approach him or not due to his near celebrity-like standing.

It caused me to compare his behavior to some of the senior executives I have worked with over the years who are given feedback that they are “aloof” or “unapproachable”.  Several of these executives were merely introverted or even plain shy, and averted their eyes as they walked by people in the hallway or stood in a corner in a room full of people talking only to the peers they knew.

What they didn’t realize that due to the positional authority and stature their titles signified, many people were afraid to approach them first to start a conversation.  People were afraid of appearing as if they were too forward, or unsure if the executive would want to be in a conversation with them—merely based on organizational hierarchy and protocol norms.  When the executive reached out first, it signaled that interaction was welcome and acceptable and that the person was indeed an approachable human being.

Mike Shanahan must have realized this intuitively over the years, as he made a concerted effort to be the one to reach out first.

So here are some questions for you:

  • Do you make the effort to reach out to others first?
  • Do you realize that by virtue of your position or stature in the organization, others may be intimidated or uncomfortable approaching you?
  • What signals do you send people about your approachability?
  • Do you always look hurried and busy, rushing off from here to there without stopping to connect with others?
  • When you enter a room, do you expect others to talk to you first, or do you make the first move and break the ice?

As a leader, keep in mind that others may feel uncomfortable approaching you.  Try making a habit of consistently being the one to reach out first.  You’ll be amazed at the impact it can have on your organization and those around you.

(And yes, I do follow football now.)