A DECLARED “open door” policy (my door is open… you can drop in on me anytime) in practice only applies to those higher up the corporate ladder. Everybody else, including those on the same level (but with lower Guaranteed Annual Cash Compensation), need to check with some gatekeeper (Executive Secretary) on the office-occupant’s availability and willingness to set an appointment.
Can a superior just drop in anytime on a subordinate? Of course. But even here, the gatekeeper may mutter under her breath that a frequent gatecrasher is too meddlesome. (Hope that wasn’t recorded.)
When a superior asks a subordinate to report to his office (all done through executive assistants), the latter is expected to drop everything, even stepping out of a Zoom meeting to heed the summons.
The subordinate may try to find out what the unscheduled meeting is all about so he can prepare his excuses. Can he check on this informally with the secretary? Such a query only betrays insecurity and entrusts one’s dignity to someone who may have the personality of a lion tamer. (Sir, I have no idea what inadequacy you need to justify to him this time.) Finding out who else is invited to the meeting may be a subtler probe of the business arising from the summons.
When a lower-level person (anybody who needs a favor) is requesting a meeting, the lion tamer tries to check what the request is all about. She doesn’t want her boss to be taken by surprise. This verbal frisking of a suspect entering hallowed grounds is what gatekeepers do for a living — Sir, can I know what petty request you intend to spring on my boss again? Can I see your powerpoint presentation and talking points? You may also have to bend over for a proctoscopy to check for hidden agendas.
The attempt at cordiality in the use of an honorific like “kind sir” betrays the contempt in which the appointment-seeker is held. Silence or a rude repartee to the guardian of the calendar (I don’t have to take off my seven veils for you, Tomato Paste) guarantees being penciled in only after one’s next incarnation as a lowly grasshopper. Please hop in.
Skipping the gatekeeper by sending a text message directly to the target creates different problems. There is the likelihood that no reply will be given, and a voice call to check if the text message got through only compounds the faux pas. Expect a fast busy tone. Text messages with powerful people are limited to fresh jokes and news of deaths, reorganizations in other companies, and drops in market cap.
Maybe the direct SMS (Can I see you?) will even be forwarded to the lion-tamer — Can you check what this joker wants to see me about?
Even a positive reply by return text (Sure, drop by the office tomorrow after 7 p.m.) should not be taken as a confirmation. Popping up at the appointed hour is sure to be met with an icy stare from the gatekeeper — Sir, I don’t have you in his calendar. Protestations that one has directly set up the meeting with the man himself are volunteered as peace offerings — anyway, he just left for a dinner with the Glee Club.
To project a graceful demeanor, the dragon lady may add with the feigned tone of a fellow sufferer that, of course, the exalted one failed to tell his faithful servant of commitments he has so giddily accepted — you know how he is. (Is that a wink?)
One benefit of friendship lies in doing away with hierarchies and the need for appointments. Can friends just pop in and have coffee if they happen to be in the building? Not really. In the office setting, even the receptionist at the lobby or the guard at the basement parking is authorized to ask — Sir, do you have an appointment?
Weekends and after office hours at the gym are not ruled by appointments. Even if these allow unscheduled conversations, free time is short and only briefly surrendered to those not too randomly popping up and chasing deals. (Check with my secretary for an appointment next month.)
The effort to get an appointment brings one under the sway of lion tamers. Still, lions are not always easily put in their place. They can sense fear in the tamer. (So, you’re still at your desk.) Lions and their tamers can be changed, after all… just like in any circus.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda