Positive Impressions

May 19, 2008

The interesting thing about impressions is that they have inertia. Biases being such as they are, people will tend to remain committed to their original positions unless something jarring happens to change their opinion.

I’m going to skip the obvious part of this essay about appearance, body language, and rest of the advice you’ve read before by simply linking to an article by Bill Lampton on CreateMyself.com. Instead I’ll focus on how to plan an important impression.

Joel’s Dud

Joel Spolsky has an article about interviewing technical candidates in which he mentions a particular candidate he interviewed once. An HR person came into Joel’s office before the interview and told him he would love the candidate. That simple act painted Joel’s perception of the candidate so much that the person could do no wrong. Joel overlooked the warning signs, filled in the blanks, and ultimately issued a “hire” decision. There were multiple people interviewing for the position, all of whom issued a “no hire” decision on the same candidate. Joel had been hoodwinked! Tales abound of similar situations in which bias misleads people.

It’s a powerful lesson and a basic fact of social reality that biases influence perception. You cannot get away from human bias. You can make the choice to ignore it at your own peril, or you can use it to your advantage.

The dud candidate would have had to make a huge mistake to jar Joel out of his biased perception. In exactly the same way, if Joel had a negative impression of this candidate, but the reality was that the person was amazing, that person would have to do something jarringly incredible in order to change Joel’s perception. That’s a situation you don’t want to find yourself in.

The Build Up

Walking on Water

If you know you’re about to make a first impression, now is the time to begin planning the build up to that impression. You don’t want to be the amazing candidate who has to prove himself despite a negative first impression. You want to be that candidate that everyone assumes walks on water from the beginning.

When I was researching Ideal, LLC before my meeting with David, the CEO of Ideal, my goal was to create a positive impression with him right away. I was set up with a three part meeting beginning with Jim Peterson, who was listed only as a “Software Consultant.” I called Ideal before the meeting to say hello, and verify the time and place. You can find out a lot about a person and company with a 30 second phone call. It also provides the opportunity to prime the person you’re meeting with to think you’re conscientious since you called first, and to expect a friendly, well-spoken person to show up when the meeting does come.

In this case, I asked the receptionist for Jim Peterson, and she thought I had the wrong number. It’s a small company, so she knows everyone who works for it. That was extremely valuable information because it let me know that Jim was there temporarily, and that either Jesper or David trusted him enough to grill me technically. It also meant that neither of them are particularly technical themselves.

It also told me that Jim was probably David’s guy, not Jesper’s. If I were a bright CEO looking to hire technical management talent I would have my best tech guy grill the candidate beforehand. But how would I be able to get a report from my guy about the candidate if the interviews were scheduled back to back? I’d have to create a natural buffer between interviews. I’d create a break, or some down time between them. Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone by making a particular player feel as though he had decision-making power by allowing him to interview the candidate before I did. David had set up the meetings this way because he wanted to know what Jim thought of me, and didn’t care at all about what Jesper thought of me. That’s good to know about the interview, and about internal company politics.

Most importantly, the phone call told me that I needed to woo Jim. I needed to be prepared to answer complex and very specific questions about the work I had done, and the roles I had played. Just like the Joel’s HR person who gave him a biased impression of his candidate, Jim would give David a biased impression of me. I had to make sure that bias was positive.

Over the course of the interview, as I answered more and more questions in the kind of excruciating detail that I couldn’t possibly have faked, I could see Jim physically relax. I saw him change from the dour technical inquisitor that I began speaking with, into a relaxed, friendly, very intelligent guy. I knew I had him when he began giving me tips about what to say and what not to say around both Jesper and David. I knew he would be my advocate to David, so I had bias working on my side.

Eyes Open

If you aren’t approaching first impressions with the kind of attention to detail and strategy that I’ve just described, then you’re leaving your fate to the wind. Any success you find will be blind luck, and your odds are not good. You must think about the motivations and pain points of the people you are meeting, and target them with positivity and integrity.


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