There’s a moment of suspended animation for any leader. It’s the time between when you’re called to leadership and when you actually assume the mantle of responsibility. It’s a crucial time, because people are deciding who you are and what you stand for before you even show up for the job.
Think about your own experiences. If you’re about to get a new boss, or your company is getting a new CEO, or your church is getting a new minister, what do you want to know?
If you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering, who is this person, and what will they be like? In the absence of concrete information, it’s easy to make assumptions.
In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama describes the hard lesson she learned on the campaign trail, she writes, “If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”
This is true for anyone in any kind of authority position. I was working with a CEO who a year into his job, had gotten a reputation as aloof and uncaring. It was puzzling because he was actually the opposite. He cared deeply about the employees and the customers. His direct reports thought he was a kind and strategic leader. Yet the prevailing story amongst the rank and file was that he was a hardline numbers guy who only cared about the money.
In truth, he was a numbers guy, a shy, smart, very nice, numbers guy who wasn’t comfortable taking center stage. He preferred to support his team backstage, which is why they loved him. Two levels down though, people who had little interaction with him created a different narrative. Because he was more of a listener than a talker, he hadn’t been proactive about connecting with people early on. In the absence of a story coming directly from him, people substituted their own assumptions and beliefs.
In the absence of personal experience, people rely on perception. Many people’s perceptions of a big boss comes from television or what their parents told them about work. If you grow up hearing your mom or dad grouse about the suits in management, it gets hardwired into your brain.
That’s why it’s critical for new leaders to be proactive even before they step into the role. In Becoming, Michelle Obama describes how between the election and her becoming First Lady she thought long and hard about how to best communicate her story. As a professional, Harvard-educated woman of color, she’d already experienced people making assumptions about her. She wanted to ensure, when she stepped onto the international stage, she was defining herself quickly and clearly.
When you’re in the spotlight, people want to know who you are and what you stand for. If you aren’t proactive about defining yourself, people apply their own lens. Their assumptions may not have anything to do with who you actually are, but they will inform your reputation nonetheless.
If you’re in a new role, let people know why you’re here and why this endeavor matters to you. If you’re lucky enough to have some time in suspended animation before you start, take advantage of it. Be smart, be strategic and be proactive about defining yourself early and often. Your reputation is too important to leave it to chance. You should be the one controlling the message.