OWNER'S MANUAL

How Hugh Jackman Taught Me to Make a Lasting Impression

A chance encounter on a New York City street offers a lesson in making the ideal first impression.
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When you speak to another person, every moment is a key moment--so make sure to always act that way.

I was standing by myself between sessions at a huge conference in New York. (I'm pretty shy but with much practice I've mastered the ancient social art of Standing Alone While Appearing Confident and Secure.)

A very pleasant young lady strolled briskly over. "I'm Janice. You're Jeff, right?" she asked.

I admitted I was.

"Great!" she said. "Do you have a second? Bill Lumbergh would like to meet you." Bill (as fans of Office Space fans noticed, not his real name) was the CEO of the company holding the conference.

"Cool," I thought. I had no idea he knew I existed so the thought he wanted to meet me was flattering.

She ushered me into a small conference room. Bill sat at the end of the table, shuffling and signing papers.

"Bill," Jane said, "I'd like you to meet Jeff."

"Hi Bill," I said, walking forward to shake hands. Without looking up he waved his left hand towards a chair and said, "Be right with you."

As I angled towards the chair I glanced at Jane. She did the half-smile, slightly narrow eyes, gentle shoulder shrug nonverbal gesture that says, "I'm sorry, he's really busy but don't take it personally because deep down inside he's a good guy." In return I did the half-smile, slight head nod nonverbal gesture that says, "My guess is you have to apologize for him a lot so I feel for you, but you don't need to apologize because I know it's not your fault."

So I sat. Time passed while I contemplated the universe and my place within it. Finally he looked up. "We're glad you came to our humble little gathering," he said.

"It's my pleasure," I said. "This is a great event. I'm sure you're very proud."

We small-talked for a few minutes while I waited for him to get to the point. He had that distracted air of someone who wants to be somewhere else doing something else and I realized there might not be a point.

So I shifted forward in my seat and said, "Well, I'm sure you're really busy," to see if I was right.

"Thanks for understanding," he immediately said, half-standing to shake my hand. "Have a great time!"

Unfortunately I didn't have a great time, at least as not as great as I had been. I wasn't bothered by the fact he didn't seem interested in talking to me; after all, who am I? I was bothered by the fact he asked to talk to me... and then came across distracted and disinterested and glad to get rid of me.

"As the owner, you are your company" may be a cliché but it is no less true: After that I saw the conference--and his company and its products--in a different, less positive light.

Petty on my part? Maybe, but I couldn't help it.

Two days later I was cutting through Central Park on my way to meet a friend at his restaurant. As I exited the park I stopped for a second to decide if I had time to walk the rest of the way or I should take a cab.

A voice behind me said, "Lost?"

I turned and said, "I don't think so..." and then stopped.  Holy crap. Wolverine was standing in front of me.

He smiled, tilted his head, and raised his eyebrows in a nonverbal, "Need any help?"

I told him I was deciding whether to get a cab. He asked where I was from (my southern accent gave me away), what business brought me to New York (my briefcase providing a clue), and if my family was along for the trip (he noticed my wedding ring). He could not have been nicer. I didn't even get a chance to squeeze in a, "Loved you in..." compliment.

Finally he said, "Oh wait, I'm going to make you late. Where are you going?" I told him.

"Oh, that place is great!" he said. "Let's get you a taxi." He took a couple steps out onto Central Park West and raised his arm and flagged a cab. He opened the back door, shook my hand, said, "Great talking to you, mate," closed the door behind me and waved as I drove away.

In three minutes, Hugh Jackman turned me into a fan for life--but he didn't sell me. He didn't glad-hand me. He just gave me his full attention. He just acted as if, for those three minutes, I was the most important person in the world--even though he didn't know me and has certainly forgotten me.

Just like a CEO, as an entertainer he is his "company," and even though I'm sure it wasn't his intention, I now see his "products" in a different, more positive light.

Superficial on my part? Maybe, but I can't help it.

Sure, you may not be Wolverine but to your employees, you're a star. To your vendors, your suppliers, to people in your community who look up to you, you're a star. Act as if the next person you speak to is the most important person in the world and they won't be able to help thinking about you, your company, your products in a different, more positive light.

Just make sure it's not an act. Don't be manipulative or false. Be genuine, be sincere, be yourself--just make sure you are the best version of yourself you can possibly be.

Because that is the "you" that other people deserve--and will see as a star.

IMAGE: Wikimedia/Paul Cush
Last updated: Aug 1, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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