You Never Know

You’re a young entrepreneur who’s just inherited his father’s burgeoning business. Dad passed away just as the business was getting on its feet and this makes you doubly committed to success, yet cautious of the mistakes the inexperienced (you!) are likely to make. One day a not-very-prosperous looking gentleman wants to pay for a huge order with a personal check. I want a happy customer, you think, but I better call the bank to be safe. Bouncing a check this big would be a disaster for your nascent business. To your relief, the man at the bank says your customer has enough money for the order. To your surprise, you learn he also has enough money to buy the bank!

“Here you go, sir.” You place the finished paperwork in front of the customer, who signs his name with a flourish. Boy I hope I made a good impression on that guy, you think.

The owner of our company loves telling us this story. This experience taught him a valuable lesson back when he started in business in the ’50s. The lesson? You never know who you’re talking to.

I sometimes forget this is true of my interactions with others. Our interactions leave impressions on people all the time. And every meeting is an opportunity to make a good or bad impression that could last forever.

The other day, I was in a newly opened deli in the tight-knit community of North Adams, Mass. A young woman came in from the cold and asked if she could use the restroom. “Only for customers,” the owner said. She was visibly annoyed when she left. My guess is she wouldn’t be back in as a future customer — ever. The deli owner never considered she might be a local business owner or might sit on the town zoning board. He may learn this lesson the hard way. You never know who you’re talking to, and we never really know about the repercussions of our actions.

Each day people impress on us in many ways. The receptionist that was rude to you when you called your doctor’s office. The angry sounding email from your coworker. Your friend’s Twitter or Facebook post that you found odd or offensive. For some reason, some of these impressions just stick with us for a lifetime.

We all need to remember that the same is true of our interactions with others. Customers, executives, and direct reports take “snap shots” of us every day. These images shape their view about our capabilities as managers –– about who we are as people. And, over time, these snap shots ultimately form a composite picture that holds long-term consequences –– for better or worse.

You never know.

Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” and as managers we are on stage more than most. Don’t forget you’re on stage, too. You never know who’s watching.

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