What can take you about 30 seconds to do? Maybe apply your favorite shade of red lipstick, lace up your running shoes for a run in the park, or send a text message to your best friend on how your day is going. All mundane, non-consequential personal activities we may do on a daily basis. But what if you only had 30 seconds to make a personal impression that impacted your entire professional life, including your career advancement, your compensation and what your superiors thought about your personality and career objectives?
It seems incredible that in the same amount of time it might take someone to punch a few buttons to withdraw money out of an ATM would be enough time for someone influential at your workplace to formulate an opinion of your personal brand. But studies show that mini-impressions count and there is usually a 30-second moment when you meet someone that you can make a memorable impression for positive or negative reasons.
Christine Gaelzer Helou, CFA, Principal of Global Fund Match, where she assists institutional clients in identifying notable non-traditional asset managers and boutique managers in traditional asset classes, said conveying your personal brand in 30 seconds is a reality in today’s competitive corporate work environment, where first impressions “can be everything.”
“Every time you meet someone they will formulate an impression of you. You should want that to happen as long as you control what that impression is. There are a lot of things that we can do to help create a positive impression,” she said.
Helou worked hard to build her personal brand. From her professional experience, she said that first impressions are influenced by a person’s overall “appearance, gravitas and connection.” While gravitas and connection are more subjective, appearance is easy to distinguish. “Looking polished goes well beyond aesthetics,” she said. “It can quickly become a question of credibility. One might think that it is cool to show up in very informal wear but a lot of people – clients and investors, your boss – still think that if an individual cannot manage to show up composed they probably cannot handle the responsibilities of a senior role.”
She remembered a time in her career where her appearance worked against her. “A few years back I worked at a firm that had a very informal dress code – or rather no dress code at all – so my colleagues and I were working in jeans and sneakers when I was asked to sit down with a manager from our London office who was visiting and looking professional in his suit and tie. As we shook hands it took me two seconds to see in his face that he was trying to contain his surprise regarding my choice of clothes and that he wasn’t going to take me as seriously as I would like him to no matter how intelligent I sounded in the next 45 minutes. I am actually glad that happened as it was a good reminder of just how important a first impression is.”
Nicole Sherrod, Managing Director of Active Trading at TD Ameritrade, where she is responsible for driving TD Ameritrade’s mobile and platform product development and business growth initiatives for the active trader segment, recounted her own negative personal branding experience that occurred very early in her career.
“I was working in Customer Service at a brokerage firm. You see, I’m someone who started my career at the entry level and I’ve clawed my way to where I am today. Anyway, I popped into the coffee room and there was the most senior and most scary executive. She was the Cruella de Vil of Customer Service. I nervously introduced myself and we started making small talk. She asked me how my weekend went and I started enthusiastically gushing about how I had just gotten engaged and what a perfect proposal it had been. In that moment, she sized me up as someone who was more focused on her personal life. I may as well have been wearing an apron. I was dead to her. As opportunities arose, I was never tapped on the shoulder. I was a customer service rep in an apron. Invisible.”
Conversely, Sherrod remembered one of her most successful personal branding career moments. “Wall Street is a male-dominated workplace. I was walking into a room of senior executives who were all male. This can be very nerve-wracking and awkward. As I walked into the room, I started singing ‘It’s Raining Men’. Not only did it get a good laugh out of everyone, but it broke the ice and allowed me to bring my authentic self to the table. I have great ideas and I’m a strategic thinker, and by breaking the ice, those men wanted to hear more about what I had to say and invited me to share my strategic thoughts at several points in the meeting.”
Helou agreed that being authentic and consistent are important qualities for a personal brand in the workplace. “Be consistent and true to yourself. Consistency can only be achieved if you are being yourself and not trying to be something you are not.”
And, for those of us who have gone home wringing our hands after a first meeting with the top executives at our company, worrying about whether we have made a positive first impression, Sherrod advised “follow-ups” because as important as first impressions are in the workplace, she said a follow-up after a first meeting can further impact the impression you make with influential people because so few people remember to do it.
“I have correspondence cards sitting on my desk today from junior-level associates who made an impact on me just by making the added effort. They turned a first impression which I would never have remembered into a note that sits on my desk so I know who to reach out to if I need to,” Sherrod said.
By Mary Chung