When I was starting out in my corporate career, the idea of personal branding hadn’t yet come into being. So I did what any self-respecting “nice Chinese girl” would do: put my head down, worked hard to learn and become excellent at the job, and waited for someone to recognize my talents and raise me up.
Guess how well that plan worked out?
What’s a personal brand?
What I really needed was a personal brand, as in what you stand for – the package of character traits and capabilities that make you who you are, expressed in a way that others can understand right away.
It’s what you project to the world as the most accurate view of who you are, what you stand for and the value you bring. It’s about believing in the best version of yourself and articulating it to those who matter.
Why your personal brand matters
Even when you aren’t consciously projecting your brand, others are experiencing you as a package of traits and capabilities. That’s called your reputation – how others see you.
And they’re forming those impressions even if they aren’t regularly articulating it. Sometimes they’re not even conscious of it themselves. It’s simply normal human behavior to be sizing people up – are they friend or foe?
Most importantly, people act based on those perceptions. Including deciding whether or not to hire you, ask you to dinner, promote you and so forth.
The bottom line is that if your reputation doesn’t accurately reflect your true brand, then you are likely to get short changed, miss opportunities, or get the wrong ones proposed to you.
Therefore, it’s important to be conscious of whether there’s a gap between your brand (the accurate picture you want to project) versus your reputation (how others perceive you), and it’s worth doing some reconnaissance on this point – I’ll share one way you can do this in a moment.
My corporate wake-up call
So, back to my “nice Chinese girl” default brand strategy. In a year-end review, I found out that my reputation was as a “super organized hard worker with a great attitude”. All of that was true, but the same could be said of my top-notch secretary. Instead, I aspired to become a Vice President and was hoping to be seen as the best version of myself: resourceful, great with clients and a leader.
Thanks to this early wake-up call, I discovered my potential career show-stopper in time: a serious gap existed between my brand and my reputation. I spent the next several years figuring out how to change this perception. If only I had known about personal branding back then!
Don’t be lulled into complacency
The danger for those of us in corporate settings is that it can make you complacent about building your own personal brand. And that’s a career mistake.
In a corporate setting, you’ve got two aspects of brand happening simultaneously: You’re expected to represent the company’s brand as well as have your own personal brand, and it’s hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.
In reality, most of our clients awarded business based on our corporate reputation, and while they cared about the specific banker working on their account, it was largely because they wanted to know he or she could deliver the firm.
That relegates the personal brand part to being important mostly from an internal perspective, which makes it seem like a “nice to have” rather than a necessity.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Make your personal brand resonate for you
If you’re like me, this can be a problem. I put my own career needs behind those of my clients and delivering results for my employer. Plus, I intensely disliked the idea of “playing politics” and “selling myself”’ to internal constituents.
If only I realized sooner that this was a completely wrong way of thinking. If you want to succeed beyond the mid-level of an organization, then you need to have a strong personal brand – one that you’ve ‘made friends with’ and are comfortable finding graceful ways to let others know about.
Often, this requires reframing it so that you can get past your own mindset issues. In my case, I found this to be the best way to frame it:
“My team depends on me to be a leader who is influential and respected so that I can deliver for them by getting them paid, recognized and promoted, and my organization depends on me to be successful in bringing in more business and developing the next generation of leaders.
To do that, I need to invest in my brand and develop the connections and visibility so that others can see the value I bring. Only then can I get promoted to a level where my contributions can help more people and make a positive impact on a broader scale.”
I ultimately did get my brand and reputation to align. The result was that I started getting asked to lead initiatives and build our parts of the franchise.
It started from a watershed moment when the new department head came to a client meeting and saw me in action. Fortunately, I ‘nailed’ the meeting and we won the mandate. The department head became an advocate who helped spread the word about my personal brand and great opportunities flowed from there. Including the opportunity to transfer to London to build a new business, which is where I live now.
Your personal brand is everything (as an entrepreneur…)
Despite my progress in the corporate setting (I became a Managing Director, and COO for Europe), I didn’t fully realize just how important a personal brand could be until I left the corporate world and had to stand on my own.
Now that I have my own business helping achievers accelerate their time to success, my personal brand is critical. In fact, I am the brand. And this personal brand needs to be strong enough to establish for myself the part that the corporate brand used to provide.
Fortunately, I have the personal brand from my corporate years to serve as a foundation, and I’ve spent the last several years building my personal brand in a new direction from there.
This time, it involves going public in a much bigger way. Rather than obediently refraining from engaging with social media (which was the corporate directive back then), I’ve learned to embrace it and frankly, engaging with people through my online presence is a major part of my strategy.
This requires much more courage and intentionality. Every day, I remind myself to be brave and to do at least one thing that’s outside my comfort zone.
Nowadays, I’m guided by my fear. That means that if I’m afraid to do something (here I’m talking about psychological fear and not physical safety!), then that’s my cue that I need to do that thing.
In fact, that’s part of my new personal brand – to be courageous and live permanently outside my comfort zone. It’s how I’ve pushed my business forward and collected a string of “firsts”: webinar, book, speaking engagements, new clients, to name a few.
Create a virtuous cycle that builds greater confidence
As a result of putting my personal brand out there with the website, speaking, workshops, social media and blog, I’ve been able to share my advice with and help even more people. I’ve also made friends, found partners, and received more requests for coaching, speaking and consulting engagements.
It has created a virtuous cycle once again. In fact, most of my work is through word of mouth and from people “seeing me in action”. These days, it’s less about having senior management come to my meetings and more about people who have read my work or experienced my talks, webinars and workshops. But the same personal branding benefits kick in.
The virtuous cycle begins with taking a step to put yourself out there, then having the courage and conviction to keep going, learning and growing. And ultimately, this builds greater confidence and self-belief to put yourself out there again.
Dan Sullivan, Founder and CEO of Strategic Coach, writes about this in his book “The 4 C’s Formula”. He describes the cycle as starting with Commitment to take action, which leads to Courage to do the new activity, and that leads to developing Capability, which in turn leads to Confidence.
And by the way, your personal brand is not something you develop once and then you’re set for life. Rather than treating it as a one-time inoculation, reassess it regularly and make sure it’s fit for purpose as you learn, grow and progress. As CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith says in his best-selling book, “What got you here won’t get you there”. Which means that the virtual cycle is more of a virtual spiral that keeps moving onward and upward – and with it goes your career!
So, what does this mean for you?
8 things you can do to build your personal brand
Here are eight tips to help you build and invest in your own personal brand as you rise to your full potential.
1. Make use of stereotypes
When you’re looking to give the accurate impression to people who don’t yet know you, it’s useful to identify what they’re likely to be thinking and assuming about you already.
Start by identifying the stereotypes that are likely to spring to mind when people look at you. For me, it’s that I’m a “nice Chinese girl”.
Then identify the assumptions that go along with that stereotype that are true and also work for you rather than against you. Lean into these – which in my case was hardworking, diligent and good with numbers.
Equally important, identify the assumptions that work against you. If they’re true, then work on changing them – in my case, this meant working hard to stop being quiet and unassertive. If those negative assumptions aren’t true, then find a way to dispel them quickly. For example, showing confidence by having confident handshake and sitting up straight and taking up your space at the meeting table.
2. Be a person, not a label
Along with stereotypes and assumptions, we’re also likely to label each other whether we want to or not. Those labels, however, can be counter to the brand we want to communicate.
Instead of allowing labels to get the better of you, strive to be seen as just you and not some pre-fabricated societal shorthand in someone else’s head. For example, I focused on being seen as “May Busch” rather than a woman, or a Chinese person, or a short person. While it’s true that I am all of those things, I’ve worked hard not to let any of them define me.
The best way to do this is by consistently speaking your mind, staking out your own position on issues, and saying things that portray your unique take on things. And at all costs, avoid just repeating what others are saying or parroting the party line of groups representing those labels.
3. Identify the gap between your brand and reputation
That gives you the basis for figuring out what needs to change. One way to do this is to ask a few people you trust to tell you the three words or phrases that come to mind when they think of you. Tell them to use positive words only.
Then, compare this with your own set of three words or phrases. What’s the gap?
And for more great strategies on how to figure out where you stand on brand, check out Dorie Clark’s book, “Reinventing You” (especially chapter 2 on doing your own “360”).
4. Focus on what moves the needle
Once you’ve identified the gap between perception and reality, choose the aspect that will make the biggest difference in changing perceptions. What will give the biggest boost to your personal brand? What’s the one thing that will make the other parts of the gap easier to close? That’s what you want to work on first.
5. Invite others to see you in action
As they say, seeing is believing. There’s nothing more powerful than having an opinion leader or decision-maker see you demonstrating your powerful personal brand. So have the courage to invite them to attend your big speech or join your client pitch. You could be creating an advocate and supporter for the next decade.
6. Keep showing up
As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up. This means volunteering for those projects that are cross-divisional and give you a chance to do something you enjoy while also demonstrating what you’re capable of. Learn to be a little bold – the world needs you to strut your stuff and help out!
7. Say it and you’ll mean it
A great way to change people’s perceptions about your personal brand is to start using the new words that you want people to associate with you, whether it’s strategic, or assertive, or tough.
A great example of this is in the book “Expect to Win” by Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley. She talks about needing to be seen as “tough” at one point in her career, and succeeds by using the word “tough” as often as she can, as in “I may be being too tough here, but we should do …” and “Let’s be tough on this one…” and so forth.
8. Act like you have to fill in the entire “brand bar”
Even if you’re in a larger organization with its own brand, “big up” and start behaving as though you need to own the brand as an entrepreneur would. That doesn’t mean being a diva and making it all about you. It does mean taking ownership of your end of the branding bargain rather than defaulting to relying on the umbrella corporate brand alone.
Start investing in a strong personal brand
Building, investing in and developing your personal brand is essential whether you’re in a corporate setting or an entrepreneur.
You are constantly projecting your brand, consciously or unconsciously, and others are acting based on how your brand comes across. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that your reputation accurately reflects your true brand so that you can rise to your full potential.
If you want to succeed beyond the mid-level of an organization then you need to have a strong personal brand, and these eight tips will help you towards that goal.
So, which tip could you put to work right away that would most help you propel your personal brand to new heights?