27 September 2023

Fast impressions: Showing a new team who you are

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Lisa Earle McLeod* says leaders stepping into a new role should define themselves quickly before others do it for them.

There’s a moment of suspended animation for any leader.

It’s the time between when you’re called to leadership and when you actually assume the mantle of responsibility.

It’s a crucial time, because people are deciding who you are and what you stand for before you even show up for the job.

Think about your own experiences.

If you’re about to get a new boss, or your organisation is getting a new chief executive, or your church is getting a new minister, what do you want to know?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering, who is this person, and what will they be like?

In the absence of concrete information, it’s easy to make assumptions.

In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama describes the hard lesson she learned on the campaign trail.

She writes: “If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”

This is true for anyone in any kind of authority position.

I was working with a chief executive who a year into his job, had a reputation as aloof and uncaring.

It was puzzling because he was actually the opposite.

He cared deeply about the employees and the clients, and his direct reports thought he was a kind and strategic leader.

Yet the prevailing story amongst the rank and file was that he was a hard-line numbers guy who cared only about the bottom line.

In truth, he was a numbers guy, a shy, smart, very nice, numbers guy who wasn’t comfortable taking centre stage.

He preferred to support his team backstage, which is why his immediate reports loved him.

Two levels down though, people who had little interaction with him created a different narrative.

Because he was more of a listener than a talker, he hadn’t been proactive about connecting with people early on.

In the absence of a story coming directly from him, people substituted their own assumptions and beliefs.

In the absence of personal experience, people rely on perception.

Many people’s perceptions of a big boss come from television or what their parents told them about work.

If you grow up hearing your mum or dad grouse about the suits in management, it gets hardwired into your brain.

That’s why it’s critical for new leaders to be proactive even before they step into the role.

In Becoming, Ms Obama describes how between the election and her becoming First Lady she thought long and hard about how to best communicate her story.

As a professional, Harvard-educated woman of colour, she’d already experienced people making assumptions about her.

She wanted to ensure, when she stepped onto the international stage, she was defining herself quickly and clearly.

When you’re in the spotlight, people want to know who you are and what you stand for.

If you aren’t proactive about defining yourself, people apply their own lens.

Their assumptions may not have anything to do with who you actually are, but they will inform your reputation nonetheless.

If you’re in a new role, let people know why you’re there and why this endeavour matters to you.

If you’re lucky enough to have some time in suspended animation before you start, take advantage of it.

Be smart, be strategic and be proactive about defining yourself early and often.

Your reputation is too important to leave it to chance. You should be the one controlling the message.

*Lisa Earle McLeod is best known for creating the popular business concept Noble Purpose. She is the author ofSelling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose. She can be contacted at mcleodandmore.com.

This article first appeared on Lisa’s blogsite

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