First impressions matter.
Whereas good first impressions can serve as the foundation for a strong relationship, bad first impressions are nearly impossible to undo.
For school leaders assuming a new position, few first impressions are more important than the opening-day speech. When I became a superintendent for the first time in 2018, I wanted to make my opening-day speech extra special. So, we took all 250 employees to a nearby convention center for a “Back-to-School Celebration” a week before school started.
As a relatively young superintendent (36 years old), I felt pressure to show I could effectively lead the district despite my age. Hoping to set a tone of competence and confidence, I crafted an introductory speech outlining my educational history, work accomplishments, leadership philosophy, and long-term goals.
The day before the celebration I met a mentor for lunch. During our conversation, he encouraged me to provide an overview of my introductory message. Eager for feedback, I summarized my speech, explaining my intent was to appear highly skilled and self-assured to compensate for my inexperience.
To my surprise, the mentor pushed back on my thinking. While he agreed there were solid aspects to the speech, he offered an alternate suggestion. Whereas most leaders believe introductions are a time to ooze confidence, he proposed I utilize a more down-to-earth approach.
“Don’t forget to show them you’re human,” he advised. “Vulnerability isn’t a bad thing.”
That night I barely slept. Already anxious for the following day, the mentor’s advice to modify the message did nothing to calm my fears.
“Vulnerability … the first time I meet these people?” I thought while lying in bed. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
The next morning, I woke up more receptive to the mentor’s recommendation. I updated the presentation to include several childhood photos. Furthermore, I came up with a few personal stories to help reinforce the content.
Even though I liked the changes, I couldn’t help but feel intense anxiety. “What if I am being too vulnerable?” I thought as staff grabbed their coffee upon entering the auditorium. “What if the staff thinks I’m a joke?”
When the event began my nerves were on full display. I rushed through the welcome and stumbled over new staff introductions. Next, I shared how “incredible” the community has been and how “excited” I am for this opportunity. Finally, I did the customary “here is my work experience” bit.
As I finished reciting my path from math teacher to assistant principal to principal to superintendent … I scanned the audience. My new colleagues sat quiet and expressionless. While they weren’t heckling or booing me, I was hoping for more enthusiasm in their body language.
Eager to break the tension, I followed the mentor’s advice and began describing my upbringing. Flipping through a number of childhood photos, I made fun of my elementary outfits, middle school haircuts, and high school pimples.
Immediately, the pressure in the room diminished. Staff were smiling, laughing, and entertained with the content. The more I let my guard down, the more staff seemed open to the message. Sensing the momentum, I began telling personal stories, sharing how significant childhood moments impacted my adult life.
I admitted how kids used to call me “Opie” (from The Andy Griffith Show) because I was a scrawny redhead with big ears, and how teasing resulted in self-confidence issues. Later, I discussed the night my parents announced they were getting a divorce, and how this bombshell altered our family dynamics. And finally, I described my ongoing battle with anxiety, and how panic attacks riddled my life as an adult.
Me - 6th Grade.
Eventually, I transitioned back to “original” presentation, covering everything from my leadership philosophy to long-term goals. And while I wanted to demonstrate that I had the confidence and courage to take on the role, I continued to reiterate that I’m still a work in progress and that I would need their help in the transition.
After the dust settled from the all-day event, I sat down and opened my email. To my surprise, I received more than a dozen positive messages about the presentation. But it wasn’t the educational buzzwords or the fresh initiatives they mentioned, it was the moments of vulnerability they appreciated.
In addition to vulnerability, below are seven concepts for leaders to consider when preparing their opening-day speech. And while this chapter has focused on new leaders ... these principles work for leaders of all experience levels:
Active Participation: Far too many school leaders criticize teachers for using lecture to deliver information to students … only to turn around lecture at employees during their back-to-school speech. Administrators should actively engage faculty in their presentations by encouraging movement, facilitating discussion, asking for real-time feedback.
Why So Serious? Some school leaders believe every minute with employees has to be serious. Certainly, there are times when heavy discussions must be held. However, opening-day speeches are not one of those times. Administrators should create a sense of excitement by infusing music, food, games, and prizes into their back-to-school events.
Opening-day festivities in 2022 included ... crowd surfing?!
Pay Homage: When new leaders assume a position, there is a natural tendancy want to be better than the previous leader. While this is a normal feeling, new administrators must be careful to show respect to the work done prior to their arrival. The opening-day speech is a great time to take a moment to honor the progress that was made in previous years.
Establish Core Values: Opening-day speeches are the perfect time for new leaders to share their core values. By taking time to discuss the underlying principles that guide their work, leaders not only establish the tone for their ledership, they give employees a preview of how future actions will be justified and decisions will be made.
Leaders should establish guiding organiztional norms from the onset.
Less is More: Using slides (PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.) to deliver a message to employees is fairly commonplace. While they are great to reference, slides must support – not replace – the message. Most leaders cram way too much information on slides, when in reality too many words district the audience. As a general rule, slides should contain no more than 30 words.
Add Pictures: The best public speakers use pictures to help tell a story. Not only do photos add variety to a presentation, studies have shown that visual content is six-hundred percent more memorable than written content. While speaking without text can be intimidating, well-placed visuals trigger emotions and promote action much better than words.
Practice Makes Perfect: I’ll be the first to admit, practicing a speech without spectators feels weird. But once the initial awkwardness has passed, taking time to verbalize a speech helps leaders get out of their own head and into the head of the audience. Previously hidden gaps in content and mistakes on slides become blatantly obvious during a verbral run-through.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown advises, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
As leaders, we are often taught to keep a distance and project an image of confidence, competence, and authority. However, it is vulnerability that is the source of human connection.
The next time you prepare to address your employees for the first time, consider the following:
Laugh at yourself.
Own your mistakes.
Let your guard down.
A little vulnerability goes a long way.
If you liked this article, you'll love my books Learning Curve and Turning Points.