In Navy, “Salty Dog” language, I was a “big soup sandwich”. I was consistently late to work, was always in need of a hair cut, and my uniforms looked like I had slept in them. I wasn’t the model Sailor. I was smart and worked hard but the “look” just wasn’t there. Due to the way I presented myself, I was treated accordingly. I was well liked but dismissed as anyone of value or merit. That was before my new Chief, Denny, checked in. Like any good leader, he sat back and surveilled the land before he started in on changing anything. After two weeks of watching me work and getting to know me, he pulled me into his office.
Denny sat me down and just stared at me. After what seemed like an hour (but it was only a minute), he said, “Chip, you’re a big soup sandwich!” (I told you!) He continued, “If you want to succeed in this organization, it’s not enough to just work hard. You also have to look the part. If you look ‘squared away’ people think you’re squared away.” He then asked me if I wanted to be a success. I didn’t deliberate. I readily accepted his mentorship on the spot. After assessing that I was pliable and a willing candidate, Denny then made it his mission to help me succeed. He made me get to work on time. He told me to get new uniforms. He made me read all the instructions that pertained to our job. He even took me to the barber and agreed to pay for my hair cut if I agreed to get it cut like his (a high and tight flat top)…which I did.
Within two months, it was like a new person had checked on-board the command. People looked at me different. They talked to me different. They valued me different. In the end, my periodic evaluations went from mediocre to outstanding.
I was the same person. I was still smart and I still worked hard but, NOW, I also looked the part. Is it fair? No! Perceptions aren’t fair. However, how people perceive you is in your control.
As a new leader (actually, just as a new member of an organization that wants to be seen as professional), we need to be aware of how we are perceived because it will affect how are teams are perceived. We, as leaders, are our team.
Here’s what I learned from Denny on managing perceptions.
First, be polished. Don’t just look the part of where you are, look the part of where you want to be. If you need to get some new duds, get some. If you need to be better groomed, get the razor and wax out and get to work. Take pride in the awesomeness of you! Once you polish your outside, polish how you interact with those around you. I think you’ll find that one influences the other. I’m also not suggesting that you change who you are or suck up to the higher ups (frankly, sniveling sycophants make me want to vomit). I am suggesting that you learn to speak the language. Know the jargon, speak it, listen to how people interact and follow suit.
Second, be knowledgeable. It’s not enough just to know your job, know how everything fits together. Be an asset to those around you with your LARGE BRAIN! With Denny’s tutelage, I learned everything I could about how things worked. I also tried to keep an 180 degree awareness and connect people with what they needed. If I was aware that you needed “X” and someone else had it, I’d connect you without hope of any personal gain. (This, by the way, is not only a great work practice but also karmic gold.) Big brains are in short supply, my friends, use that huge brain for the betterment of all!
I learned a LOT from Denny over our three years of working together but these two lessons served me well throughout my entire career and do, still, to this day. We make value judgements on people within the first four to five-seconds of meeting them. That doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us human. Make those four to five-seconds count with a little polish and through being an asset to those around you. It won’t be long until you’re the one EVERYONE counts on to get things done.