Building Your Personal Brand

Whether people want to admit it or not, they project a certain image about themselves and their capabilities in life.  At work, where our understanding of our coworkers is influenced by only limited information, managing your brand can have a significant impact on how others perceive and interact with you, and ultimately how much success you experience in your career.  Do you have a personal brand?  You don’t have a choice as to whether or not you have a personal brand – you have one.   Your only choice is whether or not to acknowledge it, improve it, and leverage it for the success of your career.

What is a Personal Brand?

The concept of cognitive simplification refers to the fact our minds tend to simplify reality when making decisions.  This is an evolutionary attribute that probably developed from the need to make time-sensitive decisionsbased on little information.  Sometimes “guessing” based on assumption was more important than carefully gathering all possible information, analyzing and evaluating it to come to a more accurate conclusion.  Some people call it “gut instinct” because in some way you think and decide without engaging your conscious mind.  Cognitive simplification was very useful when man had to decide which animal to try and kill or which way to run from danger.  Today, we carry this decision making process with us.  When faced with where to eat in a new town, we don’t need to get detailed menus from all restaurants, compare prices, look up driving distances, and visit the place ahead of time to test the social atmosphere.  Instead we make assumptions.  We look for cues that tell us what our dining experience is going to be like based on our preset understanding of restaurants in general.  This process allows us to find a nice, reasonably priced, seafood restaurant by only driving by and seeing it from a distance.  The process of cognitive simplification is even more important when it comes to more complex decisions like how to interact with others in social situations.  I’m sure that you have probably heard the statistic that communication is 85% nonverbal.  The words used to communicate often only relay part of the message.  You may know literally what someone said, but if you don’t know what they meant by what they said, you risk a dangerous miscommunication.  We make assumptions about what a person actually means when they say “nothing is wrong” by analyzing nonverbal cues and comparing those things to our understanding of human emotions.  Of course these assumptions can be wrong from time time time.  I can’t count the number of times I misinterpret what my wife means by what she says.  But more often than not it’s more effective to operate based on perception than work diligently to discover the truth.

In the workplace we also make assumptions about what other people are like, what they are good at, and how to work with them.  We call these assumptions attributional filters, because for the most part we classify members of the workplace into categories based on their attributes.  Marketing will be creative, while Accounting will be analytic.  Technical ability might be in Information Technology, while leadership might reside with Operational Management.  Sometimes the attributional filters follow other characteristics than function within the company.  Someone young might carry a different perceived set of skills than someone older and more experienced.  Likewise even physical appearance will play a role in your perceived skill set and intelligence.  I break these attributional filters down into the following categories:

  1. Functional – Your role within the organization – You know what they do.
  2. Relational – Your group, friends, co-workers you surround yourself with – You know who they are with.
  3. Physical – Age, sex, ethnicity, physical attractiveness, social status – You know what they look like.
  4. Historical – Work experience, geographic background, life history  – You know where they came from.
  5. Technical – Acquired skills, education – You know what they are trained in.
  6. Personal – Intelligence (creative, analytical, and social), character, motivation, aspiration – You know what they are capable of.

The five attributional filter categories are listed in order of complexity.  Each one lists some characteristics about a person, that when known, are used to classify that when known (or perceived) classify that person differently.  Each attributional filter can be illustrated with the statement “You know…” fill in the blank.  At the simplest the CEO of a company will know what your function is, he or she will know what you do (or have an idea of what you should be doing based on where your job is in the organization).  Whether right now wrong, how your role is perceived is the strongest filter you project about yourself.  This is why game-changing high-profile projects many times get assigned to operations and marketing instead of accounting and finance – depending on the perception of each group within your company.  Relational and Physical attributional filters are also relatively shallow measures of one’s actual work ability, but much easier to define and apply.  Like the functional attributional filter, relational and physical may imply things about you that may be completely false, but nonetheless, your project to those around you.  The deepest attributional filters are those not known by many in your organization, but are those that best indicate your true ability and potential for achievement within your organization.  They are historical, technical and personal attributional filters.

What is a Good Personal Brand?

With the understanding of how a brand works, what constitutes a strong brand?  I break the general characteristics of a good brand down into five categories.

  1. Trust – Are you trustworthy?  Do you do what you say you will?
  2. Recognition – Is your brand understood?
  3. Preference – Is your brand in-demand?
  4. Competence / Quality – Are you good at what you do?
  5. Value – Is the cost of your pay/recognition/risk of failure worth your potential?

Depending on how you have defined your brand you should ask yourselves those five questions.  Hopefully when you do you find a couple of them you could stand to improve.  Maybe the concept of your brand is easily understood by others, but it is not in-demand?  Can you increase the demand of your skills or should you go somewhere where they are demanded?  Can you change your skills and shift your brand to align with what is in demand?  Maybe you are the best at what you do and have a high quality brand, but you continually set expectations you cannot achieve.  Trust is the cornerstone to developing a strong brand.  If you erode your trust every other component of your brand is discredited.  Maybe your high-quality work is understood and recognized as being the best, but the perception of value is lacking.  Maybe there are costs associated with working with you that you have not thought about.  Are you easy to work with?  Do you volunteer for work or do others need to make an effort to tell you what to do?  Do you require a lot of instruction?  These are costs that erode your value.  You may produce amazing results, but if there is a lot of friction in the process of achieving them, your brand is not as strong as it could be.

There is no one answer to what a good personal brand is.  Obviously the ideal personal brand is different to different people.  Once you identify what is important and you define what a good personal brand means for you, understand that although authenticity is important, perception is everything.  You could very well “live your brand” and “walk the walk”, but if others don’t perceive you as that way – your brand is not what you think it is.  At the end of the day, you might evaluate yourself as 10/10, but if others don’t see it that way it is up to you to shape their opinions and change their mind.  Although posers run the risk of being discovered, those unsung heroes of the company will remain in that capacity until they make sure their brand is truly understood.

Why is Your Personal Brand Important?

It is easy to see how a CEO, depending on the knowledge available about you, will start to classify you and make assumptions about you in order to simplify his or her understanding about all personnel in the organization.   This assumption about your abilities and potential is important to your success.  If you are known for being smart and creative, you will be one of the first in line when it comes to generating new ideas or getting involved in game-changing projects.  You might well be smart and creative, but if the decision-makers of your organization do not know that (it’s not part of your brand), then you are likely to be left out.  The more those who are perceived as smart and creative have opportunities to display those abilities, the more future opportunities they get.  Likewise, until you are seen as smart and creative, you won’t get opportunities to show that exhibit those strengths.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.  The key is to do things that build your brand and get others to perceive you as being on the good side of the cycle.

Another major way that your personal brand can become critical to your success in the workplace is that your brand usual shapes and limits your credibility.  It’s hard to push ideas or promote initiatives that fall outside what others perceive to be “your thing” (your brand).  If you’re known for being creative you will have a harder time pushing ideas for a better calculation of commissions for sales staff.  Your method may very well be sound, but until you have someone perceived as having a financial or technical background, your idea may not be taken seriously or may not be considered practical.  Realizing this might mean shaping your brand to help support issues or initiatives you might try to gain buy-in for.  When your initiative is time-sensitive this might, instead, mean that you need to seek out someone else who’s brand you can “borrow” by gaining their backing and essentially having their brand lend credibility to your idea.   I might be the conservative, boring accountant, but if the young, bright Marketing Rep (who has a strong brand) is behind my idea for a new marketing campaign, I have simplified the decision for others by reducing the risk that my idea is a flop.

Stages of Brand Strength

As you start building and improving your brand, it is important to recognize the stages of brand strength your brand is likely to go through.  They are listed (obviously) from weakest to strongest.

  1. Rejection – Anyone but him!
  2. Functional – He should do, it’s his job.
  3. Preferred – I know he’ll be good at this.
  4. Insistence – Nobody else will do!

What is ideal level of brand strength?  Well the highest level, insistence, right?  No!  Insistence is a trap.  When your brand is so strong that others absolutely cannot live without you, your brand in certain areas is so strong that it’s starting to limit your ability to change and evolve.  When you are insisted to do a certain function or fill a certain role because you have instilled in others you are the best, be careful.  They may very well start agreeing and decide you will serve in that function, and only that function.  Ideally you want to be preferred.  You want to be among the top, but it takes a strong will to settle for the fact you might not be perceived as the only option for the job.  Although my competitive nature disagrees, this is actually ideal.  Having others in the company that share the same abilities actually grants you flexibility to change your mind and shape your own future.  You might actually build additional brand quality by making it a practice to help develop those less adept than you to be more like you are, essentially following in your footsteps.  You do not want to get stuck tomorrow based on what you have branded yourself to be the best at today.  I know in my own life, I have gradually shifted my focus along with the company’s needs and my own interests.

10 Ways to Improve Your Personal Brand

  1. Recognize you currently have a brand and define what that is.
  2. List categories of attributional filters that may hinder your brand.
  3. Get others to market your brand for you.  Associate with people more aligned with your ideal brand.
  4. Seek endorsements of strategic partners when your brand lacks strength in a relevant area.
  5. Market the skills that make your brand important more proactively
  6. Align your brand with what’s in-demand (scarce/most valueable within the company) you may need to move.
  7. Communicate your value.
  8. Willingly disclose mistakes and be the person to explain them first.
  9. Make your work easy to digest, but cultivate appreciation for it’s complexity.
  10. Be consistent.  Do what you say you’re going to do.