MANAGING FIRST IMPRESSIONS

We are all familiar with the power and durability of first impressions.  And nowhere is this more critical for a manager or executive, than those created during their first week or two in a new job.

A manager’s new subordinates and colleagues will almost certainly have done some checking around and their reputation will precede them.  Even if they are a brand new manager, there will be some pre-existing notion concerning what they will be like as a boss and old colleagues are likely to have shared a story or two.  And you can add to this the common belief that all new managers will want to change some things, just to place their stamp on their new organization.

While all of these pre-conceptions matter to some degree depending on how strongly they are held, so too does the impression a new manager or executive personally authors during their first weeks on the job.  Moreover, in time, first impressions will become a far more accurate indicator of how the new boss is seen, than any of the pre-conceptions these initial impressions fail to reinforce.

First impressions are a byproduct of behavior.  They result from what we do and say.  They arise from how we act, speak, carry ourselves, interact with others, and from the choices we make.  The vocabulary we use and our demeanor and tone of voice when we speak helps shape them. While we can manage many of the early impressions we convey by conscious forethought and action, there is unfortunately an unconscious element to many of our actions that are out of our control.

Nevertheless, there are certain impressions the new person in charge can consciously endeavor to manage with determined effort, fixed purpose, and consistent attention to reinforcement.  The list below represents those initial impressions that I have found most beneficial in laying a firm  foundation for achieving both the boss’s personal and the organization’s long-term success. They involve behaviorally and verbally demonstrating:

That you are willing to let others make up their own minds about your management philosophy, practices, and policies by observing what you do, not by what you tell them they are.  So nix those “here’s my management philosophy” and “I have an open door policy”speeches.  Folks will figure these things out for themselves and quickly.

That you do not have all the answers in advance and that you really want to listen to what others think.  You cannot fake this.  This is best achieved by asking lots of questions, listening carefully to the responses and following up with additional questions designed to dig deeper into the respondent’s thoughts and perspective.  There will be plenty of time for laying out your own strategic thoughts and plan for moving ahead.  The key here is to convey that you wish to inform your thinking based on what you learn.  Conversely, when a new manager seems in a hurry to convey what he or she wants or thinks about everything, their openness to the thoughts of others is likely to seem fraudulent.  Just listen for a while.

That you recognize that good work was done before you arrived.  Simple recognition of past and ongoing accomplishments or work in progress, buys a new manager considerable good will.  It also lays a firmer foundation for asking subordinates to follow the new boss’s lead either in accelerating their efforts, or moving off in some new directions.   A workforce that feels unappreciated for what they have already accomplished, is a drag on most new initiatives.

That you have no desire to fix things that are working well.  Change for change sake is a disruptive process.  Identifying what is actually not working well and needs fixing, is just plain common sense.  It communicates a seriousness of purpose and focus in a new boss and eases any concern that constant churn and change are goals in and of themselves.

That you have not prejudged people based on your past experience or by what you may have heard.  Most of us wish to be judged with an open mind by a new boss.  This includes those who may have previous experience with the manager in question and those who may have had others bend the new manager’s ear about them in advance.  While demonstrating the open-mindedness I am suggesting is not always easy, it helps if the new manager makes clear by her or his actions that it is what people demonstrate they can do that really matters to them.  Making personnel decisions based on demonstrated ability without regard for rank, seniority, or self-promotion is a powerful way to unleash the ambition, productive spirit and creative enthusiasm of an entire workforce.

That your future plans will require a partnership. Consciously sending your new organization this message is beneficial in two ways.  First, it signals your willingness and intent to involve those directly affected by your decisions in there implementation.  Moreover, it signals your intent to insist on active subordinate participation as their end of the bargain.  In time, this will help you determine who is on your team and who is not.

In sum, a new manager’s behavior, demeanor, words and actions in her or his first few weeks on the job create a powerful set of impressions and expectations that will endure for good or ill.  Send the right signals and the job of managing and leading a new organization gets much easier.  Send the wrong signals and you may just buy  yourself more trouble and opposition than you want.

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