Seize Control of Your Professional Brand or Someone Else Will

Young businessman walking on a street
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 Consider two sets of questions:

  • What are you known for?
  • Why do higher-ups place their faith in your ability to guide and develop others?
  • Why do team members and peers actively follow and support your efforts?

And: 

  • What is it about your reputation that is impeding your progress?
  • How are others adversely influencing your forward or upward progress?
  • Why are you not gaining power and influence?

Both sets of questions are squarely focused on the topic of your professional brand.

This slightly abstract sounding concept is one of the critical issues impacting your progress and success. Fail to manage your own brand and someone will. And chances are they won’t treat it with the same care and concern you will.

Most of us do not spend a great deal of time thinking about the questions above. That's too bad. Yes, we are busy sprinting through our days fighting fires, pursuing opportunities and sometimes, just getting by while striving and mostly failing to find a little more balance in our work and life equations. Nonetheless, we need to find time to make the abstract concept of our personal-professional brand something distinct and tangible and something that we deliberately develop and manage. Our careers as leaders, managers and contributors are on the line. 

When You Forget to Manage Your Brand: John's Story

John was a brilliant individual contributor as a senior product manager.

He had an uncanny ability to translate customer ideas and market insights into hit products. He was also ambitious and very much wanted the opportunity to lead a team of product managers and engineers. He believed to his core that he could raise the performance level of the team and the entire organization in this capacity and he lobbied his boss about this issue fairly regularly.

John’s boss agreed with the idea and worked to gain support with the executive committee responsible for these decisions.

Those who worked closely with John understood his brilliance and genuinely respected and liked him. However, John was self-admittedly socially awkward. He was incredibly uncomfortable speaking in public and avoided those opportunities. He also appeared nervous in front of executives and while they heard the words about his skills, John’s persona did not support the words.

As the executive committee considered the promotion request, the head of another group who actively coveted ownership of the product team spoke up with a comment that derailed the situation. “Yes, we all know that John has some important skills, but do we really believe he is ready for leadership? After all, we’ve seen him in action.” This passive-aggressive statement derailed any talk of John being promoted at this point.

Clearly, John and his boss had failed to read the political environment and understand obstacles. John was not helping his case with his interpersonal quirks.

Following the disappointing outcome, John with his boss’s sponsorship, began working with an executive coach on presence and communication issues.

Fast-forward eighteen months and John earned the promotion he had eagerly been seeking. During the next few years, John’s team became known as the “Hit Team,” producing a string of top selling offerings in a row and propelling the firm’s revenues and earnings higher.

One More Critical Question:

In group settings, I pose the question to the audience: “What adjectives will your top office adversaries use to describe you?”

This question typically catches people off guard. We don’t regularly think about so-called adversaries, but we all have them. They are the individuals vying for resources, budgets and of course, greater assignments and responsibility. While they might be friendly competitors, they are still competitors and they do not have your career best interests in mind as they navigate their own career steps. 

If you find yourself on the slow-track or losing end of resource and promotion decisions, chances are your adversaries have thought about you and have worked to position themselves effectively in the minds of those who choose us to do more.

7 Actions to Seize Control of Your Professional Brand: 

In working with high potential professionals and emerging leaders to strengthen performance and career progression I encourage them to focus their efforts in the following 7 areas:

  1. Accept that others must select you to do more. Your hard work is essential, however, you must also convince others to place increasing amounts of trust in you. People guard their trust carefully and you must earn it through performance and reputation and through deft (but ethical) maneuvering through the political environment in your organization. 
  2. Assume that your competitors are positioning you in a way that places their interests ahead of yours. This is a kind way of saying that if you do not manage your own brand and reputation, others will manage it for you, just as they did for John in the story above.
  3. We all need a swim buddy. The Navy SEALS assign every recruit a swim buddy who shadows the individual through all of the challenges of some of the world’s most demanding training. You need the equivalent in your environment—someone who will share honestly how you are perceived by others and what you are doing right and wrong. This feedback might be difficult to hear, but hearing and understanding it is essential for moving forward. 
  4. Take stock of your brand at a point in time. Ask for as much input as possible. If appropriate, use anonymous surveys, and of course, draw upon swim buddies to help you understand how others perceive you.
  5. Clarify your own professional value proposition—what you stand for and what you want to be known for. Assess your current reputation against the value proposition and identify the priority actions to help move perceptions closer to the value proposition. John understood his value could be amplified many times over by leading a team. He had to first take stock of the perceptions that were keeping him from achieving that goal and take action to eliminate the gaps. In his case, once the communication and interpersonal gaps were eliminated, his prior strong performance plus his strong brand and clear value proposition helped others decide to take a chance on him in a leadership role.
  6. Engage in the political environment. While closely aligned with number one above, I cannot stress enough that you cannot ignore the political environment in your organization. Identify those who hold power to choose you for success and find ways to build relationships and gain their trust. Ignoring this need is a formula for failure. Engaging in relationship building and strengthening ties with people in power does not have to resemble “playing games.” Rather it is good commonsense. Make yourself valuable to people in power.
  7. Cultivate a strong network of peers, subject matter experts and “can do” type individuals. Your network will help you succeed with the big, visible initiatives. Find every opportunity to engage and support people in your network. When they support you, make certain their efforts and accomplishments are visible to all. Your willingness to help others advance will pay dividends in gaining future support when it proves critical.

The Bottom Line:

Increasingly in this world of change and uncertainty, we are all our own employers. While we might work for a firm or serve on a team at a point in time, each of us are responsible for defining, developing and managing a professional brand that helps us grow and succeed. Ignoring this critical career issue is a sure-fire way to fall short of your own aggressive goals. Alternatively, investing time to deliberately develop and reinforce your professional brand is a sure-fire way to strengthen your odds of success.