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Make a Great First Impression

Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. – Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo commercial c. 1990.

One rainy day during the Revolutionary War, George Washington rode up to a group of soldiers attempting to raise a wooden beam to a high position. The corporal in charge was shouting encouragement, but the soldiers couldn’t position it correctly. General Washington asked the corporal why he didn’t join in and help, to which the corporal replied, “Don’t you realize that I am the corporal?” Very politely, Washington replied, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Corporal, I did”. Washington dismounted his horse and went to work with the soldiers to get the oak beam in position. As they finished, Washington said “If you should need help again, call on Washington, your commander-in-chief, and I will come.”[1]

Imagine the first impression that Washington made on those men. Any doubt whether these soldiers gave their all on the battlefield for their commander-in-chief?

We all recognize the importance of first impressions. It is during the first few moments of interaction that we begin to size up others in our attempt to determine who that person is, the qualities that they possess, and how they operate. While this is the case for all people that we meet, it is particularly true for new leaders. Employees are often extremely anxious to become acquainted with the new boss and determine how they will get along. Even bosses who have been promoted from within are being watched carefully for signs of leadership style and intentions.

While you can’t stop people from making snap decisions about you, you can make those decisions work in your favor. One thing to keep in mind is that first impressions are more heavily influenced by nonverbal cues than by verbal ones. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal signals have over four times the impact on the imprint that you make on others than anything you might say. Research also teaches us that such impressions are made in just a handful of seconds, so the first interaction is really important.

Here are some ideas to help make a positive first impression:

  1. Monitor your attitude – Attitude comes across right away. Before you get in front of people, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody. Think of it as a great opportunity to quickly make a bunch of new fans.
  2. Stand tall and straight – Maintaining a tall posture demonstrates confidence and competence. Just be sure not to come across as cocky and arrogant.
  3. Offer a firm handshake – Shaking hands helps establish quick rapport. Doing so firmly lets people know that you are confident, self-assured and excited to meet them.
  4. See eye to eye – By making eye contact, you indicate interest in others and openness to working with them and getting to know them.
  5. And smile warmly – A smile says, “I’m friendly, caring and approachable.” It also says that I like you and am glad to see you.
  6. Ask for (and learn) their names – Dale Carnegie famously wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People that, “Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” People love when you use their name and you can score serious points by learning others’ names quickly.
  7. Be a good conversationalist – Be talkative and get to know people. Ask about their background and position and let them know that you look forward to working with them. And don’t forget to listen actively, with the posture that says, “I care about what you are telling me.” As Dale Carnegie said, a person can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than she can in two years by trying to get other people interested in her.

(Of course, these strategies should be front and center any time that you seek to impress. Carnegie wrote of a certain Robert Cryer, who was the manager of a computer department for a mid-sized company. Cryer was desperately trying to recruit a Ph.D. in computer science. The one that he hired had also been pursued by some larger, better known companies. Sometime after the young man accepted Cryer’s offer he told his new boss that the energy and positivity that he used to recruit him had been the main difference maker in his decision. “Your voice sounded as if you were glad to hear from me... that you really wanted me to be part of your organization.”)

By working to kick things off positively, new leaders greatly increase their likelihood of gaining their colleagues’ trust and support from the outset. This will hold them in good stead as they become better acquainted and encounter some inevitable turbulence in their relationship.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership.

[1] Maxwell, J. (2011). 5 levels of leadership: Proven steps to maximize your potential. New York, NY: Center Street Press.

A Mile Wide and a Mile Deep

A number of months ago I published a post in these pages about a fishing trip that I took last summer with three of my sons. It was a great experience that also offered me many lessons that pertain to my true passion: education.

One idea that I shared then was that educators need to “cast many lines” in order to effectively “hook” their students. For our trip, the crew cast a sizable number of fishing lines from all sides of our boat’s rear. Some were thrown far out; others were weighted directly below the vessel. This reminded me of the fact that students have many different interests and abilities. What excites and stimulates one child may not engage another. Teachers who wish to draw all of their charges into the learning process need to consider the types of “hooks” that they should use in order to make the learning stimulating and meaningful.

Upon reflection, I realize that there is another lesson to be learned from the many lines that were cast. As noted above, some were hurled far distances from us. (We would catch two fish on those lines, called “punishers” because of the arduous work that is needed to reel in the catch.) Others were lowered directly below us, at varying depths. Throughout the morning, we followed fish activity around the boat with a special sonar tracking device. As fish made their way around and under the vessel, our crew tried to adjust the hook positions to bring the bait closer to the hoped-for catch.

The presence of both the “breadth” (i.e. distance) lines and their “depth” counterparts on the boat’s deck was absolutely necessary. Each one served a distinct purpose and was needed in order to maximize the experience. But there were some natural tensions that went along with using them, such as making sure that the lines did not entangle, as well as determining just how many of each to cast. Both sets of lines were important and the crew needed to manage their resources in order to maximize the experience for their customers. 

I believe that this same tension also exists for teachers. As educators, we want to expose our students to as much information as possible (what we might call educational breadth). We also feel compelled to “cover ground” in our quest to meet curricular demands. At the same time we want to go deeper, to probe further into the learning and give our students a richer experience than the superficial treatment that may otherwise experience.

If there was ever a time when teachers were well positioned to meet this challenge head-on, it is now. We have so many technological and multimedia tools at our disposal, including interactive educational programs, as well as videos and social media. These resources allow us to move faster than before, by offering different ways for students to intake information. They also give us more opportunity to go deeper, such as with the enhanced search capacity that we have today with Web 2.0.

Outside of increased technological integration, how else can we effectively walk the breadth-depth tightrope? How can we give more than meaningful lip service to both domains in order to ensure that our students are learning in the most robust manner possible? The following strategies may help:

  1. Map out each unit – Before beginning instruction map out all of your instructional goals. These should include how you intend to engage your students in each of the six levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (original or updated versions). By identifying how and when you intend to go deeper in the learning, you can advance through the curriculum confident that the learning will not be overly superficial.   
  2. Differentiate your content – Content differentiation is perhaps the most challenging component of differentiated instruction (DI). Teachers worry about having to craft multiple lessons for each content block and often do not realize that content differentiation can be easily achieved by going deeper in the learning. After using a pre-test to measure student knowledge and readiness, teachers can use Bloom’s taxonomy to identify opportunities for more advanced students to explore the content at higher cognitive levels.
  3. Cut down on the note taking – One technique that I used effectively in my social studies classes was to cut down on how much note taking I expected from my students. The curriculum called for a study of many centuries of world history and I loathed the idea of having my high school students simply listen to lectures and take notes. I wanted the class to be interactive and for my students to learn more than basic historical information. In order to achieve this goal I gave my students a set of incomplete notes in the form of PowerPoint handouts (3 slides per page) and delivered the lesson using PowerPoint. Their job was to fill in the gaps and then participate in the cooperative learning tasks that I assigned with the time that we saved by not having to write cumbersome quantities of notes. Such assignments included role play, debate and other interactive tasks.

The tension between breadth and depth is one that will never go away, so long as there are strong curricular demands that we must adhere to. Using these techniques can help teachers better manage this conundrum in a manner that gives students the most rewarding learning experience possible.

Managing Life’s Fluctuations

Shortly before the Purim story begins the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree urging all Jews to return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild their central house of worship (see Ezra 1:2–3). One can imagine how high the Jews’ collective spirits must have been at that time. Yet, just as things had improved for the Jews quickly, they would sour almost as rapidly, eventually bringing the Jews to a collective sense of despair and near destruction.

Despite Cyrus’ mandate and the Jews’ initial enthusiasm, a mere 50,000 Jews actually returned to Israel. Their attempts to rebuild the Temple were thwarted by a scheming local population, who convinced Cyrus to quickly reverse his edict. These Jews soon headed towards despair and assimilation. Cyrus’s successor, Artaxerxes, led the Jews of Persia down a different path of dashed hopes. He transferred executive power to Haman, whose edict sent tremors throughout the Jewish world.

What ultimately saved the Jewish people at that time was the great degree of faith that they were able to achieve under the devoted leadership of Mordechai and Esther. Through fasting and repentance, they reconnected with God to such a degree that they came to “re-accept” His Torah (Shavuoth 39a, based on Esther 9:27). In so doing, they invoked God’s compassion and brought about their own stunning and complete reversal of fortunes (see Esther 9:1).

Of course, peaks and valleys are part of our personal experiences as well. How can we manage the ups and downs and live a balanced life? The following strategies can help us navigate through the vicissitudes of life and maintain a well-adjusted lifestyle and perspective.

When you’re up:

  1. Relish the moment – Find ways to celebrate your successes in a manner that deepens your appreciation for what you have. List some things that you can do today that would be impossible without your material or other blessing and good fortune.
  2. And extend it – Identify opportunities to give, monetarily or with your time, to others in a manner that will help your high moments live on. Recognize that our abundance is not intended to be hoarded but shared. Let your rising tide raise other ships as well.

When life throws you a curve ball:

  1. Look for the good – At times of challenge, it becomes easy to get lost in our problems. We begin to look around us and ask why others seem to have it so much easier than we do. Think about the many things that you have and acknowledge that some people lack even these.
  2. Be confident – You’ve done it before and you will do it again. Remain confident in your strengths and abilities, while seeking ways to expand your skills and capacity.

We are bound to experience many highs and lows in life. For some, such fluctuation will fall within a relatively tight span. For others, the range will be much wider. Maintaining a positive, balanced outlook, one that helps us to keep all of our experiences in perspective, will go a long way in providing us with the comfort, stability and true happiness that we all seek.