When They Get Behind Closed Doors

In our executive conversation workshops, we share research on how long it takes a senior leader to form an impression of a manager and how long those impressions last. I can always sense a little tension in the room when I bring this up. And yet, it’s a reality. Leaders form impressions; we all do. And, sometimes those impressions may not be as impactful as we’d like them to be.

My goal is to get managers thinking about the weight of impressions and what leaders do with those impressions as they talk about talent development, future leaders, and promotions. I’ve heard many leaders share their impressions, and here’s a summary of some of our “behind closed doors” questions with leaders about the impact of impressions and presence.

Do leaders hold onto impressions?

Yes, of course. Leaders hold onto one interaction and it can be really difficult to change their perception. In talent review meetings, leaders remember details. In many cases, the one impression is repeatedly highlighted and can influence other leaders’ perceptions.

What are the most common mistakes that managers make related to impressions and impact?

The simple things seem to be the biggest mistakes. Managers ruin opportunities with behavior when they believe they are “off the clock.” Social media is like a hidden camera for managers. Leaders read and check social media to see how managers represent themselves. Every interaction is important…the lunch line, the team meeting, and the elevator conversation.

What do leaders really look for when they talk about advancing managers?

The number one discussion point is leadership. Leaders ask for specific examples of when the manager demonstrated strong leadership or influenced a group. They also ask about emotional intelligence, presentation skills, and in-house reputation.

What are the gaps that leaders don’t think managers can overcome?

It’s rarely about the technical parts of the role. The gaps that seem big are centered on interpersonal behaviors. Promotion discussions are about a manager’s ability to work on a team, to present and leverage ideas, and influence others with their ideas.

Here are things every manager should consider to strengthen their brand.

Relax, Everyone Forms Impressions. Even you. We form impressions every day in our professional and personal lives. So, don’t be frustrated that leaders are talking behind closed doors. We all do it. The difference that managers should be aware of is how long these impressions last because leaders don’t interact with you as often. So, it calls for more intention with these impressions and greater awareness of how your brand is perceived.

Gain Awareness of Perceptions/Impressions. It isn’t as difficult to get insights as you may think. If you have some visibility to senior leaders, chances are your direct manager knows how you are perceived. This person is critical to gaining the visibility to strengthen impressions and broaden them across a group.

Build a Network to Expand Impressions. In our coaching engagements, we help seasoned managers and leaders think about their base of influence. We learn about leaders all around a high potential manager, and we ask them to think about perceptions and impressions. When you have visibility to a broader team, they can influence impressions and strengthen your brand.

That’s what you can do to strengthen impressions. But, what do you do when the impression just wasn’t good? It may not have even been your fault. Maybe your managers gave you poor advice. Or, maybe another peer didn’t keep you in the loop and you felt blindsided. If you’ve led enough conversations with a senior leader, you’ve had a few not so great ones.

We all have. But, the point that I make to managers is to “close the gap” when impressions aren’t everything you want them to be.

Here’s what I mean. As often as I hear about misalignment in a meeting or missing some critical questions, I also hear the executive perspective which includes little acknowledgement or follow-up from the manager. And, I think that’s an important step to learn.

When a conversation doesn’t go as well as you’d like, it’s critical to follow-up with a leader via email, phone call or through your own manager. From the leader’s perspective, their greatest worry is that the manager doesn’t know they missed the mark. And, it reflects a lack of good awareness or understanding of how to influence peers, employees, and even leaders.

For years, I’ve coached managers to clean up mistakes and acknowledge when they don’t bring their A game. And, it works. It diffuses the leader’s top worry about awareness.

But, it doesn’t take the gap off the table.

Managers should recognize and acknowledge a miss step. But, a manager cannot continue the behavior and expect a second pass. A miss signals awareness, but a leader will still be looking to see that the skills are strengthened in another setting.

How difficult is it to talk a leader out of a negative impression?

There is only one way to change perception and that is by continual change. The adage that “this person will change” is not a convincing method. Positive behavior changes occur when the manager wants to change and shows continual improvement.

Leaders do get behind closed doors, and that’s where most decisions about career development and promotions occur. If you feel that you’re gaining visibility in your career and want to be sure that you’re making the right impressions, we can help you gain awareness and strengthen your impact. And, that’s when initial impressions become lasting ones.

Call us when you need us.

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