First impressions can, indeed, last a lifetime

There’s a great article by Sara J. Welch in today’s NY Times (subscription required), entitled, "Traveling with the boss." It’s chock full of useful tips from experts on what to do and not do while traveling with the one’s boss. The bottom line is that a junior employee is "always on" when traveling with a boss, and should act accordingly.

The article brought back a flood of memories for me, both on the sending and receiving end of things.

I remember traveling with a client many years ago to attend a sales retreat. I was about 25 at theTraveling  time, and made sure to ask the client in advance how I should dress for the Sunday afternoon flight to Phoenix. He responded by saying, "dress casually." I took that as an opportunity to wear jeans, t-shirts and sneakers to the airport. Imagine my surprise when, upon conecting with him, I saw the client sporting a blue blazer, blue button-down shirt, khakis and loafers. He immediately pulled me aside and said, "Steve, there’s casual. And, then there’s casual. Don’t let this happen again. Your appearance reflects on me as well and makes me look bad in front of my management." Lesson learned.

The Welch story also advises junior staff to be mindful of what they say to their superiors when traveling on business, and to not be too casual or engage in inane or inappropriate conversations. The latter admonition reminded me of a more recent incident in which I was traveling with one of our newer employees. Up until the point, I’d never really had a chance to speak with her with the exception of a few e-mails, etc. So, as we sat back and relaxed, I told her to go ahead and ask me any question about myself, the agency, or the industry. She became flustered, and was obviously at a complete loss as to what to ask. Knowing that the firm had recently rented a midtown Manhattan apartment for use by our senior executives and visiting clients, she finally blurted out, "So, what does the corporate apartment cost?"

That was it. That was her sole question of me. I answered her question, she nodded her head and then dove headlong into a book she’d brought along. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. And, needless to say, she no longer works with us (not to imply that that comment cost her job. On the contrary, she simply didn’t work out).

Here’s one final, more upbeat travel saga. A group of us were recently traveling to the Midwest, and had encountered endless, weather-related delays. In fact, our late afternoon flight was eventually cancelled and we were forced to stay overnight at a godforsaken Newark-airport hotel, and grab the first flight out the following morning.

Beaten bedraggled and brutalized by the experience, our little quintent shuttled over to the terminal at five am. Once we checked in, we discovered that one of our group had been upgraded to first class. It wasn’t me. But, guess what? The woman who had been upgraded selflessly gave me her first class seat. She’ll forever be a hero to me and today, sits in my partner Ed’s office (only kidding). I may, in fact, remember her in my will.

Business travel, and comporting oneself in a professional manner while traveling, is a subtle, but critical, part of one’s overall professional development and career path. Ms. Welch’s column should be made mandatory reading in all college and university business programs.

16 thoughts on “First impressions can, indeed, last a lifetime

  1. This post is right on. I too learned my lesson my first trip ever for a client meeting. It was a Sunday and I was traveling alone – told it was ok to dress “casual”. So, I wore jeans and a t-shirt. I recongnized someone from the ad agency on the plane – in a suit. I spent the entire plane ride and trip to the hotel hiding from the guy. I knew at that moment it wouldn’t happen again. Still, I’ve had to share this experience with a few fellow travelers over the years who are not taking their first trip. They should know better and it’s surprising. Sometimes it does take the embarassment from a client calling you out to make an impact. Just the other day I saw someone leaving the office out here for a new business pitch. They were wearing what looked like sweat pants and a baseball cap. Bad news.
    Also, I have to comment on the hellish travel trip you mention. I have to admit, meeting some of you for dinner that night, the trip – though hellish – made for some of the funniest stories I have heard re: business travel.

  2. An employer is cheap because a client paid for a business trip ticket? Are you sitting outside in the heat? Look, there is no “downside” to always behaving in a manner that, when you look back on it, will make you proud. Too often the time that we must be on our “best behavior” is when we least feel like it. But boy does it feel good when you get through a tough situation and know that you didn’t stoop to someone’s lower position. Try it next time.

  3. I paid for it myself and then was reimbursed thru the agency after I submitted an expense report that was fed to the client. Talk about cheap, huh?
    Regardless, I hear what you are saying Dandy, I should never risk a job/career because my employer is a total ass. I don’t think I am dumb enough to make that type of mistake…and in this case I didn’t. I resigned shortly after landing (well on the following Monday).

  4. I understand what you are talking about, but Rep’s blog is about correct behavior when on a business trip with a company superior. It sounds as if you really proved your self during the meeting and I’m surprised you didn’t continue to show yourself in the best light by doing the proper thing regardless of your employers behavior. You would have showed yourself to be head and shoulders above him. You see it as ass kissing- I see it as well-mannered and proper behavior. Afterall, Who paid for that ticket?

  5. You’re assuming a lot from me ranting about working for a tyrant. I took Rep’s blog as a vehicle to rant about someone who has wronged me. It fit with the topic and related posts. So I went with it.
    I do consider myself to be a gentleman. I ask questions and then listen to the answers. I share. I give. I hold doors for ladies. I don’t usually raise my voice, and most importantly, I buy my friends beers.
    My point: just because someone is my employer doesn’t mean I have to kiss his or her ass. If I did that, I would lose something much more important: self respect.

  6. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.
    – Gen. Robert E. Lee

  7. I knew you weren’t talking about Rep and Ed. A true gentleman (or lady) is someone who treats everyone with respect regardless of whether the other person “deserves” it or can help you in any way. Proper manners are either a way of life or something that you use to get something. Sorry to learn that your manners are not part of the fiber of your being. But don’t worry- most people are like you.

  8. And of course, I am NOT talking about Rep & Ed. This was at a different firm, in a different city.

  9. Yes, I kept the seat. Hey, I was the one who asked the lady at check-in if first class was available. Threw in a wink and a smile, too. He was only concerned enough to get seated on the bulkhead – which he got.
    I really don’t care how that reflected upon me – in his eyes. This is a guy who, along with his partner, shit on his employees day after day and never took any of our ideas seriously.
    Because I went for broke and won, I should give it up to him? No way.
    It takes two to tango, Dandy. That’s how I see it.

  10. Jimbo: Are you serious? You actually kept your first class seat to what? teach your employer a lesson? Are you crazy? You think that “put him in his place?” Don’t you know how badly that reflected on you? And what is this horse-hooey about only respecting someone who respects you? No- no- no baby. That is NOT the way to live your life.
    With all due respect,

  11. David:
    Didn’t realize my post had been snarky, but so be it. In my opinion, not enough people think about the impact their actions have on their image and reputations (as well as the images and reputations of the organizations they represent). And, so many of us have to learn things the hard way. That’s why I saw the Welch piece as a great “caveat” to share with younger people (in fact, I’ve already suggested reprinting the entire article and placing it in our new employee handbook as a must-read).
    Jimmy, to answer your questions: no, the corporate apartment is no longer among the living and, yes, I’ll give some thought to things I’ve learned from junior employees on business trips and create a separate blog.

  12. To Jimmy’s point I’d like to say that Repman has taught me some pretty invaluable lessons on the road. For all the snarkiness of his last posts, Repman is actually very calm and collected in times of travel-induced stress.
    I know this may seem like the uber-kiss-up comment of the year, and in part, it is. But since you ask, Jimmy, one of the things I learned from a recent biz trip with the Repster is that flipping out when things go wrong won’t solve a thing. Presentation counts for so much in any industry, and Repman has taught me to put one’s best face forward, even when the lights in the airport are flickering and you’re about to vomit from car sickness.
    So, yes, while I’m curious to know what Repman has learned from his employees on the road, I know I’ve learned to keep on keepin’ on.

  13. So, does Peppercom still have the corporate apartment? I thought it went the way of the dodo. I remember some fun times on that balcony.
    That aside, at my firm of employement the same thing happened to me – being bumped up to first class. Not only was I, but so was the girl who worked with me on the account. And the agency head was with us on the trip and same flight. We kept the seats.
    If it were you, Rep, I *might* have given it up, but after 4 days of being ordered around in front of my client when all of the work we had done was above and beyond (CNBC, AP, LA Times all covered this very lackluster event), I had had enough and felt I deserved the seat (I even cried during the viewing of the Notebook). My point is: I’ll respect someone who respects me…
    I agree with you – it is most important to be on, and dressed well (I’ve learned my lesson) when around the client or on biz travel. To that end, if you’d consider it, I would love to read the opposite of this post – meaning what valuable lessons you were taught by your employees. When timing permits, of course.

  14. I-man: Your post reminds me of yet another priceless story that may, in fact, be urban legend. In my early, early days at Hill & Knowlton, I was warned to be careful what I said on the flights to and from Cincinnati, headquarters of P&G. We’d just won a big piece of P&G business and were told that the previous agency had lost the business as a direct result of having trashed the various client reps on the victorious plane ride home. Unfortunately, a P&G representative happened to be sitting nearby, overheard the conversation and reported its content to the appropriate people. And, voila, the new agency quickly became the old agency.

  15. excellent post today, very much agree with what you wrote. i would add that this is something to always keep in mind, especially when travelling to shows/conferences, even when flying solo.
    it seems like every time i fly to vegas, atlanta, orlando, etc, the person sitting next to you at the airport or on the flight is going to the same show. on my last trip to vegas, the guy sitting next to me on the flight was talking on his cell phone (before takeoff of course) and dropped a huge piece of confindential info about a company i was in contact with. i don’t know who he was, but he very much helped me and really screwed one of my competitors.
    i bet these things happen all the time, especally when thousands of people are descending upon a city for an industry trade shows and don’t realize that the people around you are likely going to the same place. that being the case, you always have to be on your “A” game and be “presentable”, especially when travelling for business.