What impression are you leaving once you leave?

It can be a strain to be aware of your actions 24/7 but as a leader it is critical. You leave an impression every time you interact with anyone, and if you are a busy person you may be leaving the impression in a few seconds.

Think about when you enter a meeting room, realize you are in the wrong room and leave. What did you say? Did you come across as simply having read the wrong room on your calendar, or as a disorganized ditz.

How about when you have just given a talk and there is a line of people waiting to talk with you, but you are tired? Do you take the time, despite your fatigue, to greet every person, listen to their question and thoughtfully answer, or do you say “sorry, have to get to my next thing” and leave?

Or you visit a site in China, or India, and you are horribly jet lagged but to the employees who you are meeting with your visit is a big deal. Do you let on that you are struggling with jet lag and whine a bit or sit up straight and force yourself to be charming and attentive to them?

Then there are the times you go out with sales people to celebrate a big win or mourn a loss. Do you relax and have a few too many drinks because you are with the lads, or do you keep a watch on your own imbibing so as to not make a mistake and say something you’ll regret.

There are thousands of such moments when you need to chose how to behave and, as a leader, I believe you always need to keep the impression you leave at the front of your mind. For you the encounter may be minor and forgetful but for the people you are meeting with – employees, customers, peers, shareholders – it may stick with them for years, especially if you let them down or disappoint them in some way.

The more people who work for you, the more important every small interaction is because your time gets sliced thinner and thinner. When you have more than 20,000 people working for you, which you may do one day, every moment leaves an impression as the CEOs of the big companies are very aware.

I’ve watched dear friends in powerful positions struggle with this. The stock takes a precipitous tumble on one day and it can be hard not to lash out and be negative to the people around you. The company misses its number and it can be hard for the head of sales not to get drunk with his boys. I’ve fought hard not to be negative when grossly over tired and had to lecture myself in the ladies room mirror to stay positive. We are all human and being self aware and conscious of the impression you are leaving with the people around you is serious work.

But if you want to be a leader it is critically important. You never know who is watching (particularly important if you are CEO of a public company). You never know what is really going on in the lives of the people you are working with and how much they may be needing you to lift them up that day. You cannot know how you may change their career choices with a few thoughtful moments.

So pay attention! I wish I had more than I did.

Photo: A pigeon hogging a Venetian water fountain © 2019 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Have courage in how you speak

A lot has been said about the big signs of courage from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Andrew Jackson but it also shows up in small ways in the office. Every day, in every meeting, courage shows up when people speak.

And in this case I am referring to how they speak. When someone makes a statement their courage and conviction shows up not only in the substance of their words but also in the very specific way they phrase their sentences and pitch their voice — and many people take the power out of their own words because they are afraid of conflict.

Some of my favorite examples of not having verbal courage:

– Making a claim and dropping your voice volume as what you are saying gets more substantial – thereby signally that you are expecting to be disagreed with. Note this is not the same thing as using a quiet, controlled and soft voice to signal anger. It’s tailing off that signals fear or lack of conviction.

– Use a “raidroading” voice – staccato, bullying your way through points so other people in the room cannot disagree with you. Bullies are cowards by definition.

– Make a statement and then soften the ending – such as “I think we should tell the customer we are going to turn of their access and all that other stuff, blah, blah, blah”. By putting meaningless words onto the end of a strong statement the speaker takes the impact out of the statement, hence making it less controversial.

– Speaking too quickly and breathily, betraying your lack of conviction

– Mumbling

– Whining. Making your statements with a blamey, whiny voice – poor me, don’t argue with me, pity me.

– Staying in your seat when you clearly should be at the white board or standing by the screen. You’re an easier target when you stand up.

– Using 10 words when 1 will do, as an attempt to bamboozle your way through.

Instead, verbal courage is a confident, clear voice and short, uncluttered sentences. Make a claim, state your opinion clearly and then shut up and listen. State what you believe and don’t be afraid to be wrong, and to have people disagree with you.

As Winston Churchill – one of the most courageous leaders (and speakers) of the 20th century said “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Career Advice

In person trumps telephone every time

I’ve had a couple of recent incidents where I was reminded, yet again, of how important it is to meet in person on critical decisions.

I say this in a context where today most of my daily meetings have some phone component. FirstRain is across three sites: San Mateo, New York and Gurgaon and so most of our meetings and discussions will have at least one person on the phone. So we have had to get good at it. And we use GoToMeeting a lot (if you use WebEx today – try GoToMeeting – it’s much better).

But there are two (or at least two) cases where telephone dramatically reduces the effectiveness of the discussion.

First is interviewing. I have been hiring a new executive at FirstRain over the past few months and as a result meeting lots of interesting candidates. Several weeks ago I interviewed a candidate over the phone who seemed very strong. Smooth, articulate, smart and asked great questions. I was impressed and told the recruiter I wanted to meet the candidate in person.

When I did I picked up on the subtleties that you just can’t get on the phone. A level of arrogance and self service that was in tone and body language, not in the words spoken. I could go on…. but won’t…. needless to say I didn’t continue.

For board members interviewing CEOs this is even more important – you have to look at “presence” and that cannot be detected over the phone.

The second case is board meetings. Technically as a public company board member you are considered to have attended a board meeting whether you are on the phone or in person and so it understandably happens that one board member or another is often on the phone because of personal or other business commitments. This happened to me this summer and I didn’t like it. I was in the UK on a call to California for 8 hours and I found it much more difficult to participate and contribute at the level I like to in board meetings. I did my best under less than perfect circumstances.

It is particularly important to be in person when working on big issues like people or strategy. When I work on executive compensation in the Compensation Committee I always want to be in the room talking with the CEO. I want to watch his eyes, listen to his voice and figure out what problem he is really trying to solve. Likewise when I am working on strategy and positioning I want to be very interactive, able to jump to the white board and reflect what I just heard back to the CEO so we can test and then polish the concepts.

This summer’s experiences have been a good in-my-face reminder. Some topics are effective on the phone but when it comes to people in person wins every time.