Leaders that try too hard to win people over are the ones that end up losing the respect of their employees – especially when it’s not genuine. The most memorable leaders know how to naturally make a good first impression. They are mindful of what most employees do and don’t expect of them and want to create for them a safe environment that enables engagement. Leadership success is all about people and when leaders forget this fact, they are headed down a path of self-destruction.
First impressions are earned quickly, but it takes time for employees to figure out the impact you are attempting to create in your leadership role. I’ve seen many leaders attempt to use their power and influence to impress their employees only to find this strategy backfiring because they were too aggressive – rather than taking a more steady approach that invites other ideas and ideals into the fold.
Leadership is not about acting the part, but rather being your most authentic self to serve the organization and advance others, while avoiding the traps of self-promotion along the way. As such, first impressions should never be forced; they are opportunities to reveal who you are and what you represent as a leader.
After being hired to assume a senior executive role at the age of 30, making a first impression was important for me to begin to earn the trust and respect of employees (many of whom were 20+ years my senior). My hope was that the employees would give me a chance to work closely with them to turn around the organization’s performance and rebuild their brand’s reputation.
Instead of walking directly into my office (the first day of work), I began to greet people at their desks. I spent a good percentage of my time the first month on the job meeting with employees and asking them about their opinions regarding the state of the company, morale of the workplace, and their other concerns and recommendations. This was a company whose employees were loyal and that had never hired a senior executive from the outside. Prior to assuming my role, I obtained a diagram of the building with the seating designations of the employees, along with their job descriptions and personal information they had shared. I genuinely wanted the employees to know that I valued them, cared about their interests and wanted to immediately contribute to their professional goals and objectives. I encouraged them to ask questions, challenge my opinions and established an open-door policy. I didn’t want anyone to feel at-risk for speaking up, but rather give everyone an opportunity to showcase their talents, skills-sets and capabilities. This would be a difficult task if they were unclear of my style and approach and my intentions for the business.
You can never go at leadership alone. Making a strong first impression as a leader is about how people initially perceive you, but respect is earned through the consistent actions you take and the decisions you make that tend to the needs of the employees and support the goals and objectives of the business. Without an inspired and focused workforce – enabled to unleash their passionate pursuits of excellence and clear about leadership’s expectations and intentions – the business becomes vulnerable, at risk of losing its top-talent, and productivity begins to wane.
As you continue your leadership journey, become more mindful of the first impressions you are leaving behind for your employees, clients, shareholders and the industry that you serve. How does your first impression begin to impact performance, morale, attitude, trust and innovation? What can you do to leave a genuine first impression at a time when employees expect more from their leaders?
Here are 14 things every leader should consider if they want to make an unforgettable first impression. Read them carefully and ask yourself which ones you are doing and which ones you still need to introduce.
1. Warm Greeting
Being nice, attentive and making good eye contact is what is expected. A leader’s ability to find areas of commonality with their employees by telling stories that humanize their persona increases their likeability factor. Employees want to know that you relate to them, regardless of your hierarchy or rank.
Employees respect a leader that projects strong executive presence. Beyond presence, they want body language that is non-threatening and a polished demeanor (everything from manner of speaking and actions towards others to dress code and grooming). When you are respectful towards others, employees are proud to be associated with you – whether in front of clients or family and friends.
On the other hand, leaders with an ostentatious attitude will be quick to lose the support of those they are attempting to lead.
3. Friendly; Engaging
Not every leader comes across as friendly. In fact, they may be so focused on work to the point of social awkwardness. Leaders that genuinely care about their employees and make an effort to engage with them – starting with a powerful first impression – will go a long way.
4. Represents Their Authentic Self
Leaders are not always their authentic selves; this is why many are challenged to develop and live their personal brand as a leader. Being authentic is about consistently representing who you are and what you stand for — in everything you do and how you do it. Leaders must be courageous enough to let others inside their domain, where they can help elevate the talent around them and accelerate the implementation of the business strategy. When leaders can be themselves, others feel free to do the same without the pretense of asking permission.
5. Good Listeners
The best leaders listen to their employees because they want to learn about them and from them. Employees that genuinely believe that their opinions and points of view matter to their leaders are the ones that fully engage. Leaders that roll-up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and collaborate are the ones that value the importance of listening and translate this genuine effort into an ROI opportunity – for both the relationship and the business.
6. Are Interested In What Matters to Employees
Beyond listening, leaders that encourage employees to ask them the tough questions will quickly begin to build camaraderie and trust with their employees. Open-minded leaders that are interested in what matters to employees and make them feel safe to express the truth are the ones that build loyalty with their workforce. These types of leaders hold town hall meetings and consistently encourage a democratic setting where employees can share their perspectives regarding the direction of the organization and its future.
7. Embrace Differences and Acknowledge Accomplishments
Leaders that embrace individuality and differences in thought and know how to strategically apply them to stimulate growth, innovation and new opportunities for the business are widely accepted by their employees (especially when you consider the growing diversity in the workplace). These leaders recognize individual achievement and accomplishments and are creative at finding new ways to enable the full potential of the organization, its business strategy and talent pool.
This may seem obvious, but never assume that the leader knows the dynamics of the business as much as you might think. Respected leaders are students of the business, constantly studying and looking for ways to improve, adapt and course correct to market conditions. Many leaders are just figureheads but not those that make an unforgettable first impression. They are the ones that will touch the business just as much as they lead it. They will keep everyone on their toes to make the organization and its people stronger.
Accessibility to leaders has become one of the most important things that employees want to see from their leaders. Most leaders hide behind the politics, and are too calculated with their accessibility (what a waste of time!) Leaders that are accessible inspire their employees and cultivate an entrepreneurial attitude that helps the organization fuel its competitive advantage. This was the case with the new CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, featured in a recent USA Today article, who made a positive first impression throughout the organization when taking over for Steve Ballmer in February.
10. Sense of Humor
A leader that brings a positive uplifting attitude fuels excitement in the workplace. When a leader has a sense of humor, it balances the intensity that exists in a high-performance organization. Leaders that can convert complexity into simplicity with a little humor take the edge off and make work fun again.
Leaders leave a positive first impression when they don’t flaunt their power and influence. By sharing their personal stories of their own career trials and tribulations they inspire hope in their employees, which in turn encourages them to unleash their passionate pursuits of endless possibilities. Vulnerability is a powerful driver of employee engagement that most leaders are too proud to reveal. We must not forget that everyone has problems, they are just packaged differently.
A leader with a consistent style and approach towards others and the business is a mature leader who knows how to work well with others and is effective under pressure and in the trenches. A consistent leader is also the one that knows herself well enough to invest in the development of her personal brand – and has grown confident enough to live it every day. Consistency is important in a leader’s ability to earn the trust and loyalty of others. Conversely, a lack of consistency is one reason leaders lose the respect and trust of their employees.
13. Lead By Example
Leading by example is a surefire way to make good on an unforgettable first impression. Too many leaders observe the game, rather than activate themselves into it. When you lead by example, you set the tone for the organization and employees will respect you more for your ability and the energy you bring – rather than just your job title. My personal motto: never advise others of something that you have never done before yourself.
Leaders today must be motivational and inspire hope. With the uncertainty that seems to never go away, employees need a leader that will help get them past the finish line. Let’s face it, the workplace has become a more intense, competitive place where we are all required to do more with less. Employees enjoy working with leaders that know how to activate the best in everyone and will go above the call of duty for them.
What will make these 14 unforgettable first impressions even more powerful is your ability to continue applying them – consistently and continuously – throughout the first six months of your leadership journey and beyond. If you have already been in your leadership role for some time, you may have to course correct and start over if you want to positively change your impact and influence. While technically you cannot leave a first impression anymore. you will be taking an impressive stance to improve your leadership approach for the betterment of a healthier whole.