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From Handshakes to Hair Twirling – What Impression Do You Leave?

Apr 1st 2013
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By Alexandra DeFelice

When was the last time you checked the firmness of your handshake? That may seem like a ridiculous trait to focus on, but it tells people something about your level of confidence and professionalism in the business world, even if those impressions are inaccurate.

Think your handshake is more firm than fishy? Fine. Do you have any nervous ticks or annoying habits – wiggling your leg, clicking your pen, or twirling your hair? Maybe they don't seem annoying to you, but others in the room could be negatively impacted by your behavior and, therefore, think less of you professionally.

Leaving lasting first impressions was the topic of a March 27 webinar presented by Sandra Wiley, COO of Boomer Consulting, as part of National Meet the Firms Week, which was presented by College Frog as a way to connect accounting students with careers and internships.

However, many of the points Wiley made during her presentation are things people at every level of their careers should be paying attention to and revisiting. After all, it's sometimes easier to be conscious of personality faux pas early in your career rather than when you're managing a team or running your own firm. We've all seen someone who should "know better" wearing an unironed shirt, talking with his or her mouth full, or checking e-mail while presumably engaging in a conversation with someone who's sitting right beside him or her. It's embarrassing, and quite frankly, it's those people who are rarely told about such behaviors because of the fear of repercussions.

Following are nine ways to make a lasting and positive impression throughout your professional career.

1. Be Intentional. Whether it's your first interview, first day on job, or 500th day on the job, act with intention. Demonstrate you know why you're there and what you're doing. "Sometimes people don't seem to care they're there or how other people perceive them. That speaks loudly", Wiley said. "Show you care and you really want to do well from the very beginning."

  • Don't just talk about yourself. "There's a lost art of asking people about themselves", Wiley said. The next time you meet a stranger, ask questions. "Bring that back into vogue again."
  • Know something about the company that the person you're meeting with owns or works for – this is especially important with existing and perspective clients.
  • Remember people's names. Repeat it back to them if it's unusual or ask them to spell it.
  • Never brag. Don't talk about all your awards or where you went to school unless you're asked. Talk about what you know in relation to what you'll be doing in the firm as an employee or potential advisor.
  • Be there. That doesn't just mean being physically present. It means paying full attention to the person with whom you're attempting to build a relationship and not letting things like e-mails or texts disrupt your time together.

2. Dress appropriately. The packaging we come to the table with sets the tone for the impression. You can be yourself and make the packaging fit who you are, but it must be appropriate to where you'll be. Depending on the type of firm or client or the geography (New York vs. California), the definition of appropriate can vary greatly, from three-piece suits to polo shirts and khakis. When meeting in person, err on the side of being a little overdressed, not underdressed, Wiley advised. If you show up in a suit and a client laughs at you, you know you'll never have to wear a suit again.

3. Mind your body language. A handshake still gives a first impression to almost everyone. The "fishier" the shake, the less professional the person appears, according to Wiley. Assuming that someone who doesn't have a firm handshake doesn't have it together may not be fair, but it's a realistic consequence. Be cognizant of nervous habits, such as clicking a pen, scratching your head, twisting your hair, or smacking your chewing gum. Don't get sloppy after a few months (or years).

4. Be interested in what the person you're speaking with is doing and be interesting to talk to. Become a reader. The more you read, the better you'll be at understanding topics in the accounting profession (and your clients' industries), current events, etc. It gives the impression you're interested in the profession, the firm, and your clients' livelihoods.

5. Juggle. The impression you set about how you can juggle and handle multiple things will stand out in how people perceive you as a future leader who can rise up faster and keep from falling once you've ascended. Learn to juggle yourself, your relationships with family and loved ones, your career, and your spirituality – regardless of whether you're religious. Many people mistakenly think those four elements will always fall in the same order of priority, but that can't always be the case, Wiley said. She shared something she'd heard at a lecture she attended that stuck with her:

"In life, there are rubber and glass balls, and you're always juggling. Your family is glass; you can't drop them – ever. Many of your work projects are rubber balls you can drop and pick up again. Sometimes the work project becomes a career glass ball you can't drop. [When this happens], let your family know you aren't dropping them, but you have to put them on hold for a couple of days – not months. They'll understand that if it isn't long term." 

6. Take on technology. Ask lots of questions about what technology a potential employer or client uses, what they'd like to be using, and the kind of training they provide. Don't be afraid to ditch the pen and paper if you prefer taking notes with an iPad or other device.

7. Collaborate. The younger generation has been collaborating most of their lives, but baby boomers generally were raised to be more individual and siloed. Many firms still work this way, according to Wiley. Bring a collaborative nature into the business. Be patient, but if you see opportunities for collaboration on a project or a client, make a suggestion. 

8. Know yourself WELL. Push outside your comfort zone a little bit. If you're introverted, act a bit extroverted. If you're an extreme extrovert, sit back and take it all in sometimes. Communicate your preferred work style. Do you like to work on one project at a time or several things simultaneously? Are you more effective in the office or at home?

9. Practice. Find someone you trust and who will be tough on you. Hold a mock conversation, record it, then watch the recording. "You'll pick up on things you're doing you'll be stunned about", Wiley said. Also, ask the person what you do well, and then ask what you can change about yourself to be better. Wiley cautioned you may want to start with a family member or close friend first (do try this at home) before asking a colleague. The "negative" traits your family member or friend point out could be as outlandish as you laugh too loud or you wear your hair like an old lady. "Don't push back", Wiley advised. "Just say, 'Thank you for your opinion and your honesty.' Those are the gems that will let you know what's holding you back – the things people generally won't tell you."

About the author:

Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at [email protected].


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