Personal branding isn’t just for Instagram influencers. Leaders can also benefit greatly by developing a personal brand that sets them apart.
Do you have leadership potential? It’s a loaded question that is raised often in performance reviews and promotion meetings worldwide. If you are beginning to think about advancing in your career, it is essential to understand how you are viewed in your organization and in your field. But other professionals – including your boss and your boss’ boss – are increasingly pressed for time to the point where they generally cannot focus on recognizing or cultivating your skills; they’re too busy putting out fires and worrying about revenues. If you want them to understand who you are and what you’re truly capable of, you will have to make sure they take note.
Of course, the challenge is that we can’t (and wouldn’t want to) just launch into a self-congratulatory monologue about our skills and abilities. Instead, we have to find a clear but subtle way to ensure others are getting the right message about us. The term “personal branding” – popularized after a famous 1997 Fast Company cover story – raises the hackles of some, who fear that it implies a lack of authenticity or a desire to “market” yourself to the point of artifice. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Instead, personal branding is simply another term for your professional reputation – some- thing that most professionals would agree is very important to their future success. Thinking strategically about your personal brand means starting to take control of your reputation and ensuring it reflects who you really are.
The form personal branding takes varies by culture. But in any country, it makes sense for successful professionals to understand how they are viewed by others and, if that doesn’t match what they’d wish, to take steps to close the gap and ensure their abilities are truly understood.
The first step, then, is being clear about the message you would like to send. Sometimes people conflate your personal brand with your “elevator pitch” – the short, pithy statement that describes who you are in 10 seconds.
That is one element of your personal brand, but your brand is actually much more far- reaching: it is the totality of the message you send when people look at things like how you dress, how you speak, who you hang out with, what organizations you’re a member of, what charities you support, whether and where you blog, the topics you talk about, and so on.
That means your personal brand is not just something you tell people; it is something you live out every day, which is why authenticity is so crucial. Even if you wanted to, you can’t sustain phoniness over time. Instead, the far better solution is to determine what is unique and powerful about who you are, and find ways to leverage that to your professional advantage.
I often recommend that executives start with a quick, informal poll of a few friends or colleagues: if you only had three words to describe me, what would they be? This forces people to focus and only list what they view as your most important characteristics. After you speak with three or four people, you’ll begin to see patterns that can be quite illuminating. As executive coach Alisa Cohn told me when I interviewed her for Reinventing You, it’s essential to compare the adjectives you hear with the ones that are necessary for where you want to go. Cohn notes: “Maybe people say, ‘I see you as thoughtful, methodical and nice.’ Those are lovely professional qualities, but it’s not a leadership brand like ‘decisive’. It’s not bad, but it’s not going to get you to the C-suite.”
The right brand fit
Next, think through how your brand overlaps – or doesn’t – with your company’s brand. It may be a perfect fit; you’re innovative and they’re innovative.
But most often, we share some elements with our company’s brand and diverge in other places. In order to thrive professionally, it is useful to think of it like a Venn Diagram from high school math: find the places where you overlap and emphasize those. One executive at a large company, whom I interviewed on how to become a recognized expert in your field, told me about the process he went through in finding the right brand fit. “A number of the people on the company leadership team come from an engineering background and look at things in a methodical, process-based way, and that’s not me at all,” he said. “There’s a streak of the rebel in me and I had to realize my natural brand wasn’t going to fit, but it still had to be me. What are the things we could agree on? I knew we could agree on results.” So he emphasized his brand as a “results-driven leader” and made a point of talking about his work in those terms. “I’ve had to actively manage my brand – to know what it is and be cognizant of it,” he says. As a result, he’s been very successful in the company.
Demonstrate your brand
Finally, it is important to demonstrate your brand. Particularly if you’re “rebranding” – wanting to shift people’s perceptions to see you in a new light – it can be useful to harness the element of surprise. Volunteer for a project that highlights new skills in the direction you’re looking to rebrand yourself or start a new initiative. If you want to be seen as a global leader, sign up for a language class or join the diversity committee. Find ways to proactively demonstrate your interest and your brand to others.
Creating content is also valuable. It has never been easier to start a blog of your own (you can use free software like WordPress) and, in most companies, the marketing team will love you if you volunteer to help write posts. Even if you detest the process of writing, there are options, because it is about your ideas, not their format. You can create podcasts or video blogs literally using just the software on your smartphone and many corporate marketing departments will also have staff that would be glad to help you, if you show an interest. Creating content is a powerful way to showcase your expertise; instead of people citing outside “experts” to validate their position, they are going to start citing you and the things they read in your blog or heard on your podcast. And anytime a client or prospective client mentions a challenge they’re facing, it is enormously powerful to be able to say: “I just wrote about that; let me send you a link.”
The best way to ensure your brand as a leader spreads throughout your organization is to make an effort to network. Not in the sense of going to “networking events” and trading business cards – instead, it is about breaking out of the ruts that we typically fall into as professionals. Most people eat lunch with the same people and talk with the same colleagues all the time. It is easy and comfortable, but it is also a mistake. Something as simple as inviting one new person in a different department out for lunch each week can have a dramatic impact on your ability to access best practices, connect with others, hear about opportunities and add value to your organization. Networking doesn’t have to be an exhausting form of glad-handing; rather, it is about keeping yourself open to new encounters and new possibilities, and ensuring that you don’t allow your connections to stagnate. If you want to keep your career moving forward, it is important to do the same with your network. Personal branding is a powerful way to distinguish yourself as a leader. When done right, it is the ultimate form of authenticity because it makes clear the value you can add and draws people to you, specifically. An investment in these strategies is one of the best forms of career insurance you can make.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.
An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.