Stan Soderstrom | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Stan Soderstrom

Background:  

Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International has clubs serving the needs of children in 80 countries. The organization also operates Circle K International, which offers university students service, leadership and fellowship opportunities.

The Mistake:

We have members from around the world and it's critical to make a good first impression. Over the years, there have been meetings where we didn’t do so well.

One example is when I greeted some delegates at the airport. We had a gentleman from Iceland who brought his interpreter with him. I made sure they knew where the luggage was, and the transportation.

They asked me, “Aren’t you going to come with us?” I told them no, because I had a pickup truck parked in the garage. Their eyes were wide open. They must not have been used to pickup trucks. They said, “No, we’d rather ride in your pickup truck.”

You have one chance to make a good first impression.

The Lesson:

The one thing I keep learning is that you have one chance to make a good first impression. And I’ve learned and relearned that lesson numerous times over the years.

We are a membership organization, and first impressions are critical when you’re recruiting members or when you’re trying to make a good public impression in the community. Those skills are also important when you work with your members in meetings or in leadership development.

Meetings are a very good example. When people arrive in the city for a meeting you really have three opportunities for a good first impression. The first is when you arrive at the airport. That city needs to make a good first impression. And there needs to be someone that greets them when they arrive at the airport.

The second is when they arrive at your hotel. You need to make a good impression at the hotel. And it’s really valuable to greet somebody and make sure they feel welcome and that their room is ready and that they can check right in.

And the third is when you get to the meeting itself, whether it’s at a convention center or wherever. The last thing you want to do is stand in a long line to pick up your meeting materials. You want to be greeted and you want to get your stuff right away.

Over the years there have been meetings where we didn’t do so well. But that lesson plays out in so many ways and in so many different situations. It’s all about making a first impression and making sure it’s a good one.

We have members from around the world; people who arrive that don’t speak the language. It’s important that you have someone there who can speak their language, and have materials in their language.

A year and a half ago, we celebrated our 100th anniversary, here in Indianapolis. We had a convention. We had one of our best turnouts in years and we worked really hard to make sure we were welcoming at the airport with signage. We even had a hopscotch as they come down the escalators at the airport with the message: “You know you want to.”

We greeted people, knowing they just had a very long flight to get here. And it was amazing how many people would stop before they picked up their luggage and did the hopscotch. It’s that kind of fun stuff that I love to do when you’re making a good first impression. It’s so much more fun to be casual and fun rather than the situation be staid and boring.

That’s important. That first impression for an organization that serves the needs of children and communities is all the more important.

Kiwanis International is on Twitter at @kiwanis.

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