First impressions matter.
Whereas favorable first impressions can serve as the foundation of a prosperous relationship, poor first impressions can be nearly impossible to undo.
For school leaders assuming a new position, few first impressions are more important than the initial all-staff meeting.
When I became a superintendent I wanted to start off on a high note so we took all 250 employees to a nearby convention center for a "Back-to-School Celebration" a week before school started.
In preparation for this event, I spent hours crafting the perfect introductory speech. As a relatively young superintendent (36 years old), I felt pressure to prove I could lead the district at a high level despite my inexperience.
Figuring I had to "prove" myself to our employees, I crafted a message outlining my previous experiences, biggest accomplishments, leadership philosophy, and long-term goals. The tone I wanted to set was one of competence and confidence.
The day before the celebration I met a mentor for lunch. During our conversation he asked if I was ready to address the staff and encouraged me to provide an overview of my introductory message.
Eager for feedback, I summarized the speech. I explained my goal was to appear highly-skilled and self-assured to compensate for my lack of experience.
I was surprised when 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.
"Not that you can't be self-confident, but don't forget to show them you're human," he advised. "Displaying vulnerability isn't a bad thing."
That night I barely slept. Already anxious for the following day, and the mentor's advice to modify the message did nothing to calm my nerves.
"Vulnerability?" I thought to myself.
"I'm not sure that's the best idea..."
The next morning I woke up more receptive to the mentor's advice.
I went to the office early and uploaded several childhood photos to the presentation. Along with those images, I scribbled a few other personal stories to share if the opportunity was right.
When my presentation began I was noticeably nervous. I rushed through the welcome and stumbled over new staff member introductions. Glancing at the audience, I could tell they weren't sure what to make of the new guy.
Searching for a way to break the tension, I started to describe my childhood. As I flipped through school photos I made fun of my elementary wardrobe choices, middle school haircuts, and acne-ridden high school days. The more I opened up, the more the audience reciprocated.
Feeding off the momentum, I shared a few pivotal moments in my life and explained how they made me who I am today.
I admitted my childhood nickname was “Opie” (from the Andy Griffith Show) due to being a scraggly redhead with big ears, and how this teasing resulted in self-confidence issues. I described the night when my parents shared they were getting a divorce, and how this bombshell altered my view of adult relationships.
The most dramatic moment was when I disclosed my ongoing battle with anxiety. I shared how panic attacks have riddled me as an adult, and how going through these difficulties gives me perspective for helping others deal with their own anxiety issues.
The feedback I received from staff was incredible. They sent several positive emails and cards that I revisit from time to time.
But it wasn't the educational buzzwords or the fresh initiatives the staff applauded.
It was the moments of vulnerability they admired.
Want to make a great first impression?
Confidence is good, but modesty is better.
Share your screwups.
Admit your mistakes.
Laugh at yourself.
A little vulnerability goes a long way.