A few weeks ago, I was called in by the president of a mid-cap company to do some executive coaching with one of his most promising leaders — someone who had just been promoted to a big-dog position and had the potential to grow into the CEO spot over time.
There was only one problem. This person was so in the weeds of their new job that they were practically shouting, “I know what’s best” from the rooftops.
It’s not uncommon in my experience to see a C-suite executive, in their attempts to make a good first impression, over-engage in a way that ultimately hurts their executive brand. While it manifests in different ways, the most common include:
- Continually dropping the name of the fancy school this person attended and saying, “Well, when I was at Harvard (Yale, Duke, Stanford, etc.), we did a case study on…”
- Referring to past project successes as a rationale for decisions. “When I worked at AT&T we encountered a similar issue, and how we dealt with it was XYZ, which won us an award.”
- Name dropping what you learned from the big-five consulting firm you worked with on your last job. “When McKenzie came in to my last company and did a project, they taught us to…”
According to one survey by Robert Half Associates, talking excessively about a previous job or company is one of the top five mistakes people make at work.
This doesn’t mean you have to hide your insights or experience. It does mean they you need to balance sharing your thoughts with encouraging others’ ideas and giving them as much weight as your own.
Don’t get me wrong: Your history, experiences, and learnings are all very valuable parts of the mix for an executive brand. The problem with all of these responses is that they are all “past based.”
The ability to start fresh — even the first week — can bring a powerful context to your new team, venture, project or position.
Those looking to crush it with their executive brand when starting up a new position can get off on the right foot the very first week, with these two best practices:
1. Know the culture you’re entering into.
One executive I worked with had started a new job where the company culture deeply valued asking why and questioning solutions. In his first week on the job, when a team member questioned the executive’s idea, he abruptly stopped the conversation and basically gave the parental “because I said so” answer.
The buzz around the watercooler for weeks was, “Who is this guy, and why doesn’t he understand the way we do things around here?” This leader failed in his first week to establish the executive brand he wanted.
In my first executive coaching session with him, I asked him what he thought had happened. From his point of view, he was being a strong leader, setting the course and steering the team toward the most effective outcome.
From their point of view, he was violating cultural norms in a way that made them feel like he didn’t respect their input or understand the way they worked. A better approach would have been to have engaged the employee who asked, “Why?” in a non-defensive dialogue. This would have strengthened both their relationship and his reputation.
2. Listen and learn.
The Ken Blanchard Company asked 1,400 people the question, “What is the biggest mistake leaders make when working with others?” A startling 81 percent reported failing to listen or involve others as one of the top issues.
Just what makes listening such a hard thing to do? For many leaders, their minds are already filled with what they think they know. The Blanchard study suggests that a deeper type of listening for managers is the goal.
As a practical matter, I’ve found that coaching leaders to ask open-ended questions the first week on the job yields great benefits for their executive brand in the long term.
Open-ended questions are specifically designed to encourage more in-depth answers weaving together feelings, knowledge, and subject matter. Examples include:
- What are the most important issues facing this department in the next year?
- What is your favorite thing about this group?
- What is it like to work in this division?
- How do you think we should go about solving this problem?
- What do you expect to be the most challenging and rewarding thing at work this year?
Turns out, your mother was right: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Why leave your first week in a new C-suite position to chance? With a few simple actions, you can crush it today and set the course for years to come.