Ten ways to make a solid first impression

Distinguish yourself

Distinguish yourself

Effective leaders follow a certain template whenever they take on a new assignment or lead a new team.   I have witnessed firsthand some very successful leaders and found a pattern in how they start setting things in motion.  They make a solid first impression.

I have found ten behavioral aspects that distinguish effective leaders and I believe these characteristics contribute to their success.  You can apply these same tools when you next take on a task.  Your task could be anything from organizing a potluck dinner for a group, aiming to get an advanced degree (leading yourself), coaching your child’s soccer team to managing a project at work.

Here are the ten behavioral aspects that distinguish effective leaders:

1.      Prepare and prepare well

As the saying goes, if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.  Read up as much as you can from authoritative sources, blogs, books and past initiatives that are similar to the one you are undertaking.

When I was doing my research to pick out the best program for my MBA, I found some very useful information at www.mbaapplicant.com.  I reached out using their contact form, and I got in touch with John Evans.  To my surprise, John not only came out with very useful tips, but also helped review the first few iterations of my essay.  John is an avid biker and had a back problem at the time.  Hopefully that is all behind him now (no pun intended) and he is back to his biking.  John’s initial reviews of my essay were a huge factor in my admission into Columbia Business School.

The point of this anecdote is to try to reach out to people when you are in the information gathering phase.  But you can still reach out to experts and sometimes you will find someone like John to give you useful and actionable information.

2.     Listen, and ask questions

Listen with the sole purpose of understanding the other person.  Whether it is a consultant explaining the subject or a team member talking about past endeavors, be a sponge and absorb all the information you can.  Since you have prepared well, you will readily recognize the good information from the not-so-good ones.

Asking intelligent questions not only shows that you have prepared well, but it also helps you gain respect.  As a leader, the sooner you start gaining respect, the easier it becomes to lead the team.

3.     Look at the big picture, and not details, in the beginning

The time will surely come when you need to get into the depths and look at things in great details.  In the beginning, however, you need to ask a lot of “what” and “why” questions.  As you start exploring why a certain thing is important or why a certain project needs to be accomplished or why the team is not motivated, you gain valuable insights.  In some cases it also helps to understand a bit of history such as past initiatives and historical team culture.  This understanding helps to put things in perspective and explain some perplexing behavior.

Big picture vision helps you steer the team towards the goal.  It also helps in clearly understanding the task at hand.

4.     Understand personalities of various stakeholders

As you listen you will understand not only the content of various people around you, but also get a feel for their personalities.  Look for indications whether someone is detail-oriented or big picture, high maintenance, their preparedness and how they present their part.  Talk to others who may have worked with them in the past and get their view points.  If you have access to past authorship, by all means read those to understand their thought process and how their thoughts are articulated.  

Whenever I get a resume of a candidate to interview, my first action is to check out their online profile on Linked In.  Google searches can be quite revealing and may help you construct someone’s personality.  That way you will be able to intelligently put them in the right role for your project. 

I have always maintained that clearly knowing each person’s role, and putting the right person in the right role is a blueprint for team success.

5.     Look for assumptions, risks and complexities

Always challenge assumptions.  It is very easy for folks to build on assumptions and when a decision is taken, it could very well be based on faulty assumptions.  Look for sources when some data is quoted.  Carefully examine percentages and numbers, especially when you see that conclusions are drawn against such numbers.

It is important to make a note of risks and the mitigation that must be activated, should the risk materialize.  In personal endeavors, we tend to overlook risks simply because the thought is not palatable.  But do consider those as well.  When you are going for an advanced degree, it could take several months before you complete the endeavor.  A lot could happen in those months.  Prepare to the extent possible.  Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Some assignments or projects are just complex.  Complexities could manifest in different ways such as incomplete information, ambiguity, multiple moving parts, etc.  As an effective leader, you must examine each component to see which ones you can resolve on your own or with your resources.  Be realistic and seek help to tackle things that are not in your control.  Whether you need a higher official to exercise their authority, additional resources, other subject matter expertise, do make the call early.  Once you make the call, communicate clearly along with definite timelines.

6.     Try to get an idea of timelines and then get organized

As you gather information, sketch out some rough tasks, milestones and timelines.  These will not be accurate and may well require several iterations.  But this first attempt will give you an idea of what all is involved.  Get other experts’ feedback on your sketches.  All you are trying to do is check whether something is totally off and then adjust it.

Do not use absolute timelines very early on, in a conclusive fashion.  There is a good chance that your timeline estimates may get anchored in peoples’ minds, and then it will become very difficult to change.  “But you said this will take 12 months, why is it now 16?”

7.     Try to fill in the gaps – i.e. complete the puzzle

In one of my projects there were two different regulations that we had to comply with.  Since monitoring and understanding regulations was not our core competency, I suggested that we “buy” this service and engage a legal expert in this field.  The suggestion was approved, and we filled an important gap.

It is important to consider what you as the leader must do on your own and what can be delegated.  Don’t get caught into doing everything for everyone on your own.  You will stretch yourself too thin and consequently will not be able to perform the important tasks that only you must do.  Delegate appropriately.

One way to look at projects is to determine the uniqueness of your project.  Every project has some unique aspect to it.  Most activities in a project are boiler-plate.  Once you identify the tricky part(s), and manage it appropriately, you will have de-fanged the beast.

8.    Look to leverage something that is already available

To quote Seth Godin, someone has already accomplished what you are setting out to do.  They may not have done the exact same thing that you need, but if you look carefully, you will be able to utilize most of what they’ve done.  Don’t re-invent the wheel.

My motto is to seek all the help you need when you need it, and to provide all the help you can when someone else needs it.

9.     Put a plan together

It is important to put a plan together.  Work through a few iterations of the plan to make sure nothing is way off.  Get a set of different eyes look at it from different perspectives.  Then when you get a good feel, go ahead and schedule important activities.  Remember when you schedule something, there is a good chance that it will get done.  My taxes are a very good example.  Unless I schedule the appointment, I don’t even start collecting documents.

10.   Communicate your vision

All the good work, the planning, clarity of roles, clear understanding of task, delegation, timelines, etc. will come to naught unless you communicate.  Communicate early, clearly and often.  Engage people well ahead of time, so that when you need them to perform, they are expecting it and are ready.

Are there any other patterns that you have noticed in effective leaders?  Do share, using the comments below.

Image: (c) www.flickr.com; author: JoshuaDavisPhotography