One of my readers recently asked me to write about first impressions:

  • What qualities really stand out to you when you first encounter people?
  • Are there certain things you always assess when you meet someone in a work context?
  • Are there any examples that spring to mind of something someone said or did that really marked them out early on (positively or negatively).

Here are my thoughts.

Make It Count

You only get one chance to make a first impression, so it pays to make it count.

The trouble is that you can’t be sure what others are looking for. And what if you don’t even know you’re making a first impression?

A friend of mine recently took a new job as an assistant coach for a men’s basketball team. While watching the team workout at his first session, he noticed two players who stood out.

Joe (not his real name) reminded my friend of problem players he had coached in the past – aloof, slow to get into the drills, didn’t muck in with the rest. These types of players were invariably difficult to coach and a bad influence on the rest of the team. My friend wondered how long Joe would last on the team.

In contrast, Calvin (also not his real name) was hustling like crazy and improving the energy level in the gym. What he lacked in natural talent he made up in terms of attitude, effort and devotion. My friend saw in Calvin some of the most successful players he had coached over the years.

When my friend asked the head coach what he thought of Joe and Calvin, he was surprised to learn that Joe had recently joined the team from a bigger program. The head coach explained that since Joe had just arrived 3 days before, he was giving Joe a chance to settle in before making any judgments. In contrast, Calvin was just working out with the team and not an official member of the squad.

My friend’s response was that shouldn’t Joe have been trying to make a better first impression on his new coach and teammates?

Of course he should have! And the right thing for a winning team to do is to cut their losses with Joe and sign Calvin instead.

In this situation, Joe got off on the wrong foot and didn’t seem to know it. The reality was that he was on the rebound from having been unsuccessful in the bigger league and still nursing his bruised ego. Unless he decisively changed his mindset and behavior, Joe wouldn't succeed in his new situation either. The good news is that Joe has a daily opportunity to change this perception, but the bad news is that he seems oblivious that he needs to do so.

First Impressions Can Be Conscious or Unconscious

The thing is, there are the conscious first impression situations – the ones you’re aware are coming up and that you can prepare for. Such as a job interview, presenting on stage, meeting the potential in-laws.

Then there are the unconscious first impressions that are going on all the time without our realizing it. For example, the potential client standing behind you in the Starbucks line, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, or seeing you cheer on your niece at a basketball game. You never know who might be there, and these unconscious situations can be just as important to your career. Most importantly, these situations show off the real you.

As I like to say, “you are who you really are when you think no one is looking”. If you kick your dog in the privacy of your own home but wouldn’t dream of doing that in public, the dog kicker is the real you. And if you’re kind to people who have no apparent direct impact on your life, that’s the real you too. Somewhere, somehow, it will all show through.

What Qualities Stand Out?

When we meet someone or see them in action for the first time, different aspects will strike each of us. For me, even in a work context, I’m not consciously ticking through a series of boxes. I’m forming an overall impression.

In particular, I’m interested in discovering what kind of person you are, which generally involves the following:


  • What’s the vibe you give off – is it upbeat and constructive, or negative? Do you bring energy or drain it? Are you calm and composed or easily frazzled?
  • What’s your stance – Defensive? Cautious? Arrogant? Combative? Skeptical? Open-minded?
  • What’s your approach to work – are you a self-starter? Do you like to get things done? What’s your work ethic? Are you trustworthy? Do you have that “hustle factor”? What’s your attention to detail?
  • Do you get along with people?


  • How do you think? How does your brain work? How quick are you? I’m less interested in grades and more interested in intelligence and the capacity to learn.

Future Potential:

  • What’s your potential to learn, grow and develop? How open-minded are you?
  • Will you make the team better? Bring a different dimension that improves our results and enhances our culture?
  • How far could you go in our organization?

And when someone shows signs of patterns I’ve seen over and over again through decades of observation, my antennae go up. Especially when they remind me of someone who is either great (the “oh wow!” types) or awful (the “oh no, not one of those…”).

For my friend, Joe was one of those outliers in the “oh no” category – that bottom 10-20% of the normal distribution. And Calvin was in the “oh wow!” category – that wonderful top10-20%.

Some People are “Hard Work”

In the “oh no” category are those who are going to be “hard work”. Here are some of the signs:

  • Needy – extremely insecure, highly strung, lacking in self-esteem, needs constant reassurance and handholding, will be in my office five times a day
  • Clueless – not self-aware, can’t stop talking, doesn’t listen, doesn’t realize they’re drowning themselves
  • Negative – sucks the energy out of the room, Eyeore-like
  • Chip-y – has a chip on their shoulder, always takes things the wrong way, feels slighted – as though the world owes them something – the Woody Allen effect
  • Entitled – has a sense of entitlement, questions are all centered on “me, me, me”, expectations out of line with reality, wants to get the benefits without doing the work
  • Arrogant – tone and demeanor say that they’re too good for the organization and certainly the current company they’re in; clearly think they are the proverbial “greatest thing since sliced bread” but without the goods to back it up
  • Lazy – needs to be kick-started into do anything

People who exhibit any of these signs have the potential to be very, very difficult to work with. The question is: are they worth it?

Even when they have an outsized talent in some area, it’s often best to pass. Every once in a while I take on one of these people and invariably end up regretting it – the problem only gets bigger. And if this is the profile of your company founder’s offspring looking for work, then it’s even more important to avoid taking them on if at all possible!

When You See a “Mary Poppins”, Grab Him or Her

On the other end of the spectrum are the delightful “Mary Poppins” types who are “practically perfect in every way”.   Grab them immediately. Or do a quick check and then grab them immediately.

Here are some signs to keep in mind:

  • Positive – has a positive outlook and brings a positive energy and vibe to the group
  • Bright yet Humble – intellectually capable of handling the work and grateful for their talents
  • Good with people – able to engage and interact with others in a positive way
  • Work ethic – hardworking, high standards of excellence, willing to do what it takes to get things done
  • Learner – interested in and open to new ideas, to developing and growing
  • Sense of humor – doesn’t take themselves too seriously, able to roll with the punches, enjoyable to be around
  • Composure – able to handle pressure without losing their cool, calm and collected when the chips are down, maintains perspective even in tough situations, doesn’t lose their temper unless it’s on purpose, a mature and calming influence on the rest of the group

How You Can Make A Better First Impression

Whether you’re (understandably) a bit self-absorbed like Joe, or on top of your game, here are three strategies to help you make a better first impression.

Get out of your own head and focus on others

If Joe spent even half as much time focusing on the people around him rather than mired in his own disappointment, he could have seen how to contribute and make a great start. Life is big, and it’s mostly not about any one of us, although that’s hard to remember when we’re not feeling our best.

So, notice when you’re turning inward, and encourage yourself to look at what you can do to serve others. You’ll feel better and make a better first impression as well.

Get in touch with your best self

If you want to excel at those first impressions, especially the unconscious ones, then get into the mode of letting your best self shine through more of the time. Get in touch with what you are like at your best, and see what it takes to live in a way that you allow that best version of yourself to be present more and more.

What usually trips people up is stress or the opposite, which is boredom. Those are the times when people don’t self-manage very well.

So, start to catch yourself when you’re displaying behaviors you’re not proud of – the ones that don’t represent you at your best. Then, step back, take a breath and replace it with the better behavior you know you’re capable of.

Get a little help from your friends

How do others experience you when they first meet you? Find some people who you’ve gotten to know well enough to ask for their initial impressions when first meeting you. See how well this matches the impression you try to give, and improve from there.

If you come across as the “Ice Queen” at first, but you’re really a warm person, figure out whether that serves you well. If it doesn’t, then start displaying your warmth from the outset. Simply smiling, nodding and leaning forward rather than leaning away can make you seem more approachable and warm.

Or if you seem junior when you’ve been in your role for decades, then it could be choosing more powerful attire, speaking more deliberately, and adopting a more measured way of entering the room.

Being Your Best Self More Of The Time

So when it comes to making first impressions, see if you can put more situations into the “conscious” category where you can show your best self. And focus on being aware of when you’re being your best self – or not – so you can encourage yourself toward being the best you can be more of the time.

When you do that, you can make those first impressions accurate without so much effort. It’s called being comfortable in your own skin.

So, what do you look for when you meet or experience someone for the first time? And how do you go about making a better first impression?