January 2017
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The Public Manager

First Impressions at Crucial Times

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

With new leaders coming into the government, it's important for federal employees to be attentive to their actions in their first meeting.

As the presidential transition in the federal government gets underway in earnest, federal leaders are challenged with significant change efforts, communication challenges, and political quagmires. Amid the clamor of this event every four years is the age-old dynamic of first impressions. The first impression is crucial and sets a tone that can make a difference in achieving policy objectives in both the short and long term.

Research tells us that first impressions happen quickly. In popular leadership circles, the most commonly accepted time span is approximately seven seconds. However, psychologists suggest the time to make an initial assessment of another person is actually less than one second. Regardless of the number of seconds involved, these initial encounters can have a lasting impact on our relationships with those with whom we come in contact.

This means that early transition meetings, along with encounters with new political appointees and administration officials, provide an excellent opportunity to get things off on a positive note. When these introductions are handled well, individuals will feel a sense of trust and connection that can yield benefits far down the road. When initial encounters go poorly, organizational objectives and goals may be compromised. And it all happens in less than one second!

To ensure the first impression is the best impression, consider these tips.

Be Authentic

First, and most important, is simply being yourself. It's certainly understandable that nerves may be frayed in first meetings, but there is no better way to present oneself than by being the person you are. We sense genuineness in others based on years of evolution. By being authentic, we not only portray a sense of confidence and commitment to the task at hand, we let the person know we mean what we say.

Look Good

You're meeting with officials from the executive branch. Despite what may be popular in the dot.com world, federal leaders should present themselves in a neat and professional manner at all times. Well-pressed, clean attire is a big first step toward avoiding fashion no-nos. Be polished. And don't forget scuff-free shoes. It's one of the first things people will notice.

Shake Hands and Use the Person's Name

Greet with a firm handshake, look the person directly in the eye, and introduce yourself. First names are a toss-up. It's generally best to use a more formal title (Ms. Simpson, Director Walker, Assistant Secretary Murphy) until you are invited to do otherwise. In this situation, a little formality at first is always the safest bet. And make sure you introduce your team members.

Take Your Team


No one ever said you need to face these initial encounters alone. A well-informed group of passionate federal leaders is a powerful force indeed. Use your team in initial meetings to set the tone for a knowledgeable and engaging exchange. Remember that "all of us know more than one of us."

Use Humor

Tasteful humor, when used at the right time, is the great equalizer. Laughter increases our heart rate, improves blood flow, and reduces stress. A little levity here and there increases the emotional attachment individuals feel toward one another and builds better working relationships.

Be Prepared

While preparation is not something typically recognized in the first seven seconds of a meeting, it will become very apparent within the first few minutes. Lack of preparation places you at an immediate disadvantage and can be difficult to overcome at a later date. Gather as much information as you can about the people you are meeting with—including their background, interests, and passions. This knowledge can be extremely beneficial in cementing lasting relationships.

A positive first impression can pay huge dividends for a federal leader. Once you've done your homework and gathered as much information as you can, take full advantage of the early seconds of an encounter to build a bridge that will last through the entire administration. The success of your agency may depend on it.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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