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… or “The Best Way to Make The Worst First Impression”

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

This is a retelling of a post-modernist nightmare - a journey into the void of virtual relationships that never become real. It is a story about lost possibilities sacrificed upon the shrines of inattention, self-absorption and indifference. The interspersed poem is by Antonio Machado - The Wind, One Brilliant Day.

Here’s a scenario that all of us who live in this age of virtual reality have, at one time or another, experienced. You make contact – maybe through one of the virtual networking groups or at a networking event - with somebody who is in a space that compliments yours. The first contact seems to go well and results in a scheduled meeting. (BTW: Have you ever noticed how many people are good at managing a first contact and little else? But that’s another nightmare for another time!)

You organize a meeting with the mutual objective of ‘identifying and exploring common interests’. If you are like me, you look forward to the session and do quite a bit of diligence in preparation. I focus on the background and interests of the person that I am going to meet with. I want to understand beforehand where that person is coming from - what is going to be of value to them. If they don’t offer, I ask for files and spend time reviewing them and thinking about possibilities. I do a Google search. I operate under the assumption that they will want to understand the same things about me. My habit is to provide information on my own background and interests. The stage has been set. So here is what sometimes happens!

The wind one brilliant day, called to my soul with an odor of Jasmine.

The day arrives. I make sure that I am there a few minutes early to get settled in and organize my thoughts. I go through the files once more - to make sure that I am fresh on the areas that we might explore and mentally sharp - on the lookout for opportunities that may arise. In my nightmare scenario, this is the high point of the meeting - as good as it is going to get.

The first negative shows up as the minute hand moves past the scheduled time and I have neither heard from nor seen the person. I am amazed at how casually some people adopt this behavior. I always consider it an indication of things to come. I make a mental note when people make their first impression by dismissively insulting me - by openly indicating that, to them, my time is not valuable nor worth conserving! I recognize that, if they will do that to me, they will do it to anybody that I would be foolish enough to introduce them to.

Then the person arrives - generally with some shallow-water BS about traffic or the fact that they don’t have control of their schedule - they sometimes blame it on their assistant. How this can be taken as anything but 1) a clear admission of incompetence in the face of the most ordinary challenges, 2) reflexively inconsiderate treatment of the person who has been waiting and 3) an open admission that they are unreliable and will resort to the shallowest excuses to cover poor performance is beyond me. But most people who adopt this tactic apparently want me to ratify their BS by responding understandingly. It should not surprise you that I don’t.

There are two variations on this theme that I should mention. Neither happens very often, but should be highlighted. The first one occurs when you show up at a meeting arranged at a person’s office and they are not there. In this situation the assistant finally reaches the person by phone and is told that “his schedule has changed and he will not be available for the meeting today.” My response (as something like this recently occurred) was “What makes him think that he has the right to act so abusively and waste my time so casually?” The assistant was clearly surprised that I didn’t reflexively assume the position - doormat style – that their boss clearly forces them to adopt on a daily basis. The meeting was at his request and at the request of one of his clients (who I was both willing and able to help). Neither he nor his assistant had made any effort to keep me from uselessly traveling to his office. Needless to say, I immediately withdrew my offer to help and informed his client that I wanted nothing at all to do with any of them. Such complete lack of professionalism and over abundance of hubris are warning signs – avoid at all costs.

The second variation comes about when the individual, who has kept you waiting, discovers that their insulting and dismissive behavior has had a negative effect on the prospects for the meeting – and that you are upset and offended. On one occasion the individual was so surprised that I held him accountable for his behavior that he muttered something about ‘catching me later” and simply walked away. Of course, I don’t plan to have any future contact with this individual and will not recommend his company in any way to people who I value.

If you are guilty of these kinds of behavior, here is a question that you should ask yourself: “On what fantasy planet am I living where possibilities will be enhanced if I start out by dismissively insulting the person that I have just met?”

Actually, I take both of these variations as blessings in disguise. The introductions that I make are generally to people of substance that I would not have treated in this manner. In these cases I simply remove the individuals from my contact list – for me they cease to exist except as hazards to warn people to avoid. But let’s get back to the nightmare by assuming that the person arrives on time.

In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses.

Now the meeting starts. I came with the objective of verifying my assumptions about what is important to this person and identifying ways that I can help them by providing opportunities, contacts and assistance. I start with a focus on the materials I have been able to review. I often take the lead in order to set the pattern for the meeting. My own style is to focus sharply on those opportunities and resources that I can bring to the relationship - and identify those which will be of most immediate value to the other person.

I often continue with “Tell me what you are looking for and why?” In a small number of cases the response is effectively “I don’t know - I haven’t thought it out!” This kind of response almost always sets me to trying to find a way to shut the meeting down and go on to more productive activities ASAP. One particular version of the response is “I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up.” My standard response to this is “I don’t deal with children. Go home and grow up - let me know when you can manage to engage as an adult.” Again, for me, it is time to move on to more productive doings.

But let’s say that the person has something approaching an adult and proportionate understanding of their skill sets, resources and needs and has been thoughtful enough to review my background and connections to have formed an idea of how I might be of help to them. I will want to drill down sufficiently to understand how I might most productively contribute to their interests. I enjoy finding out about them and identifying ways that I can be of help. Those of you who know me well or have visited the Longview website know that there are a wide range of such possibilities - that I have a far flung network of contacts - and that I am always willing to help people who I respect, like and trust - and who return the sentiments.

By now I may have identified a handful of opportunities for me to contribute value. My tendency is to identify one or two that are doable within a relatively short time scale (a kind of test set). Delivering on these will give me a good idea of how well they (and subsequently more important matters) will be handled (a measure of the kind of person I have just met). I summarize them one by one and highlight the actions that I am going to take. So by now I have my action items - and it is time to see if the highway is one or two lanes.

I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.

At this point the conversation should naturally turn around. The other person should take the lead in moving the focus on to identifying ways that they can be of help to me. Sometimes it becomes obvious that they have decided that the meeting has achieved their objectives and is properly over. In a way it is, but not in the way that they tend to see it. When reversing the flow doesn’t happen, I automatically mentally trash my notes and begin thinking about other, more productive, things.

I am sure that I am not unique in this – or at least I hope that is the case. I don’t offer or accept many purely speculative meetings. The process usually starts with a fair amount of confidence that there should be a two lane highway possible - with something more than sporadic traffic in both directions. By this I mean that I have done enough diligence on the person to have a strong suspicion that they are capable of bringing me significant opportunities in one of my ‘sweet spots’ and that they are the kind of person that I am likely to come to trust and enjoy getting to know – the kind that I would feel comfortable bringing into situations where the interests of my good friends are at stake.

The most common dead end occurs when it becomes apparent that they have not given the question much thought at all. The dominance of “I need” has brought them to the meeting and that has been their focus from the beginning. The question “OK, what’s in it for me?” is only allowed to be spoken by them and answered by me. The converse is unthinkable. In extreme cases, when I ask “OK, what’s in it for me?” the offered response becomes effectively “the joy of helping me.” Yeah, well I’ve had enough of that kind of joy to last a lifetime – let’s split the check and get out of here – this meeting has turned into a kamikaze raid on a vacant lot!

Sometimes I come to suspect that the person has misread who I am and what my interests are. At other times it becomes clear that I have misunderstood an individual’s capabilities and interests. These things happen – and I try to spend a bit of time correcting those impressions. As Jimmy Buffett wrote, “It’s human nature to miscalculate.” If two people are engaged based on an honest effort by both, possibilities may be identified that were unthought-of at the start. I have almost always found this effort at re-centering will worth the effort.

There are also times when it becomes clear that the fit both of us expected is not going to be likely. This is a fair outcome and I tend to consider meetings ending in this manner just as successful as ones which serve as the launch pad for extended relationships. If someone has made an honest effort to help craft a productive meeting, I generally honor that effort with a willingness to introduce them to people or opportunities that may be a better fit.

Well then, I’ll take the withered petals and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.

Within the telling of this nightmare, Machado is right on target. The lesson is lost opportunity and wasted time and attention. The un-finesse-able truth is that mistaking someone for the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause is evidence of a profound, latent immaturity. People, and the world that they make up, are simply not organized for the sole purpose of satisfying your needs. Considerate and supportive treatment is required from both sides if a relationship is to grow from those tentative initial contacts to fully formed friendships that overflow with mutual benefits. And what is lost as a result of a negative first impression is most often lost forever.

Perhaps in Tartuffe, the wise king thinks much more of a man’s virtues than he does of a man’s mistakes; Orgon’s past loyalty to the king is rewarded, and his mistakes are now forgiven. But in real life the scales don’t balance in such an artificial way. Being asleep to opportunity, indifferent to balance or abusive towards others has its costs. And those costs should be a cause of real personal grief in sentient beings – not just for lost opportunities but also for the inhumanness that underlies them. As Bill Holms wrote in his poem titled Advice: For it is important that awake people be awake - Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; The signals we give - yes or no, maybe - should be clear: The darkness around us is deep!

The wind left. And I said to myself: “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

Doc’s Rules for First Meetings: OK - so I’ve rolled a bunch of behavior into one ‘worst case’ scenario. Remember I did say that this was The Best Way to Make The Worst First Impression. Maybe one or two of these occur at any given time. In the best of times, none ever show their faces. But the grief over lost opportunity - and for having wasted time that was once new and available to spend on something of value - has led me to formulate a set of rules. For what they are worth, here are Doc’s guidelines for assessing first meetings on the run:

  • If the individual doesn’t come to the meeting with a clear idea of what is of value to them and how you might be able to supply it, that person is not worth taking the time to get to know.
  • If the individual comes to the meeting without having figured out in advance the things that are of value to you and how they might provide them, the meeting is a waste of time – move on.
  • For meetings that show some promise, follow up promptly with a test of responsiveness. Sort out the ones who are good at taking meetings and little else from those who are willing to seriously engage. Ignore the former and cultivate the latter.
  • If the meeting has made considerable progress towards the construction of a two lane highway, schedule a follow-on meeting and make sure that you keep up your end of the deal – this one could be a keeper!

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

I look back on the first three months of my work with Dr. Smith with wonder. My journal reflects a journey of self-discovery so vast that I hardly recognize the person who wrote the first entries. It's been a year now and I am happier now than I have ever been.

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