Book Chapter - Defining Your Brand and Shaping Your Reputation (Issue #13)
Name it, claim it, build it, and defend it
This is a draft of chapter 13 from the book I’m writing this year, Building the Invincible You. I share a framework and strategies for:
Reclaiming your power in your work and life.
Regaining your freedom to spend more of your time the way you wish you could.
Building the future you want for yourself and your loved ones.
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“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
― Jeff Bezos
What do people say about you when you’re not around? Have you ever wondered?
It's kind of funny when you think about it, but the biggest decisions about you and your career are typically made when you're not in the room - or on the Zoom. For example, when I was a corporate manager, we made hiring decisions about candidates in meetings without those people being present. When we made decisions about the employees we would put on an upcoming layoff list; those people certainly weren't invited to those conversations.
You won't be present for these types of decisions about your career either, so you can't defend yourself if someone in a meeting with your manager thinks you should be demoted or fired. You can't use your best communication skills or your mastery of the art of persuasion to try to convince people in some secret Zoom call to hire you or promote you.
People make these significant decisions using the data and information they have at hand (e.g., your performance review, interview notes about you, and your portfolio). But these decisions are also influenced by how people view you and think about you. We wish that decision-making could be a purely rational process, but we all know that emotion plays a significant role, too. So, your reputation and "professional brand" will either help you have fans and supporters in those meetings or critics and detractors.
Over the past 30 years of my career, I’ve encountered almost every mix of branding and reputation that you might imagine. I’m sure you’ve also seen your fair share of people who did great work and colleagues loved them, but no one in the broader industry had ever heard of them. Or, people who thought they had an excellent reputation but did not.
I’m reminded of one leader who had a pretty amazing professional brand. He had worked at all the right companies and had all the right job titles that looked impressive on paper. People who didn’t really know him — or hadn’t worked with him — viewed him as a potential superstar hire.
However, those of us who had worked with him and were aware of his actual performance had a different view of his professional reputation. While his surface-level brand was strong and impressive, his reputation wasn’t so great. Many insiders remembered him as an incompetent, cowardly, weak leader who was never completely honest or forthright in conversations. Executive recruiters may have wanted to hire him, but we knew that would be a mistake.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the relationship between your reputation and brand. Both are important and they do impact each other. Some people use those terms interchangeably, but there are some differences. You may claim a brand, but you earn your reputation by how you live.
Your professional brand can be distilled down into one or two words.
Brand is about building awareness and guiding perception.
You have more control over your brand than your reputation.
Your brand is a blend of how you wish to be perceived and how others actually do perceive you.
Your words can help define and direct your desired brand (i.e., you can name it and claim it).
You can work hard to proactively create your brand and even spend money to increase awareness of it.
Your reputation is more complex and usually requires more explanation and examples to support it.
Reputation is often about a judgment of you, which can be good or bad.
You have less control over your reputation than your brand.
Your reputation is less about what you or others say and more about your actions.
Your reputation is earned by how you live, and your behavior can help shape the professional reputation you desire.
You can’t proactively create your reputation or “purchase” one, but you do build one over time with what you accomplish, how you work, and how you treat people.
You should intentionally define what you want your professional brand to be and how you can reinforce it. You should also intentionally nurture and strengthen a positive professional reputation.
In a perfect world, your brand and reputation are in synch (i.e., you have a great reputation and strong, correct professional branding). People talk about you in a way that you wish they talked about you (e.g., “Tanya is so smart!”). Your behavior reinforces your brand and builds a broader reputation that supports your professional goals (e.g., “Everyone says they love working for Tanya. We should hire her for our new leadership position.”).
So, what do you think your professional brand is right now? How do people talk about you? Are you happy with your reputation?
Intentionally shaping your reputation
How do you feel about the phrase "Personal Branding"? Many of us probably believed it was only relevant for people who make a living from their name and who they are (e.g., models, celebrities, actors, athletes).
The concept of branding yourself can also feel a bit distasteful or annoying when you think about how it has been used and abused by social media influencers (e.g., the Kardashians). By the way, if you're in the mood for a laugh at the expense of some influencers, check out Influencers in the Wild on Instagram. You'll see some of the most ridiculous behavior in public that you can imagine, and it's all captured on video.
After viewing some of those videos, I wouldn't be surprised if other words come to mind:
The recent poster child for fake personal branding is Shimon Hayut, AKA Simon Leviev, and AKA The Tinder Swindler. This Netflix documentary tells the story of a notorious con man who used the Tinder dating app to live a life of luxury while defrauding numerous women across Europe (and maybe worldwide). He stole an estimated $10 million from his victims!
He developed a fake personal brand and online persona as the wealthy son of billionaire Lev Leviev, known as the "King of Diamonds." That guy should be in prison, but, believe it or not, he now claims to run business workshops (probably helping other con artists become better con artists).
When we see examples of obviously fake personal brands all around, no wonder many people think the words "personal" and "brand" shouldn't be used in the same sentence. I get it. No one wants to be viewed as superficial or manipulative.
However, there is a difference between a personal brand and a professional brand. I'm not a personal brand kind of person, nor do I encourage it for others. But, I do believe you should treat your career like a business, and the product that business sells is the work you do professionally.
Therefore, I do encourage building a professional brand for your career and the value you deliver through your work (either as an employee or solopreneur). Another way to think about this is how it relates to your professional reputation. How do people think about you and the work you do?
A professional brand is your reputation at work with colleagues, managers, customers, etc. You build it with the quality of your work and how you get things done. It is reinforced by your words, accomplishments, communication style, behavior, and interaction with others.
Your reputation is built on your confirmed behavioral consistency over time. It’s not entirely within your control, but you are not powerless, either. You have an opportunity to intentionally shape your reputation instead of letting it evolve haphazardly.
Your professional reputation is based on your behavior, actions, and how you treat people. While your words can define and reinforce your brand, they do not have the same impact on your reputation. You must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
If you want a good reputation, you must perform good deeds and behave like a good person.
If you want a reputation for delivering quality work, you must work hard to perform well.
If you want a reputation for being trustworthy, you must demonstrate that you can be trusted.
If you want a reputation for being a strong, compassionate leader, you must be the kind of leader that people can respect every day.
If you want the kind of professional reputation that will make you invincible and constantly in demand, stack up your achievements to create a track record of success. Of course, some failures will occur (we all have them), but your overall record of wins should support a reputation that makes you desirable in the market.
A good reputation cannot be built upon a solitary action. There is no “one and done” when it comes to building a powerful and positive reputation.
Your reputation is what you consistently do and what you are known for doing. It can’t be based on something that happens sporadically or occasionally.
This means that you must be an observer of your own behavior. Every action you take will either strengthen your reputation or weaken and damage it. Every interaction with another person adds more information to the reputation you build in the broader professional and social circle around you.
Now, you don’t have to be perfect, of course. We are all human. We have moments of weakness. There are times when we feel down. No one should demand perfection from you.
However, the preponderance of evidence should support the professional reputation you desire. For example, a leader who wishes to be viewed as a rational person who uses data to make decisions can’t use objective data 50% of the time and emotions 50% of the time. The people around this leader would view such decision-making as unpredictable.
Speaking of the people around you… your reputation is less about how you view yourself and more about how others view you. Unlike a professional brand, you can’t simply claim a specific reputation. Instead, it will be reinforced by the things other people say about you when you’re not in the room.
Perhaps this is one of the most challenging and frustrating truths about your reputation. You may never fully know what your reputation is in your broader professional network and industry. Also, some people may view you one way (e.g., she’s a strong leader), while others have an entirely different opinion (e.g., she’s a narcissist).
In the next chapter, I’m going to dive deeper into the incredible value of your network. One of the most powerful segments of your network is your innermost circle of trusted peers and advisors. We all need people in our lives who are honest and care enough about us that they will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.
Your trusted circle can help you get to the truth of your reputation. Strangers and acquaintances will rarely feel comfortable sharing bad news (e.g., “Some people who work at your company say that you’re power hungry and political.”). But your trusted advisors should be more honest and help you see yourself as others might see you.
Again, your reputation isn’t what you want it to be or your personal opinion about yourself. It’s how others view you, what they’ve heard about you, and their opinion of you. Right or wrong, perception matters, and it becomes the reality for your reputation.
So, use your network to uncover and confirm what that reality is. Leverage your interactions with others to build the truth. This is your opportunity to shape reality.
Finally, a reputation is built over time. It can take years to build a good reputation. Unfortunately, it can be ruined in a heartbeat. Just ask Will Smith.
"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."
— Warren Buffett
Be patient and recognize that building and maintaining a good reputation is the work of a lifetime. This may sound daunting, but don’t you want to be the person you claim to be anyway? How you act and behave every day should reflect who you are and who you want to be.
Again, no one is perfect and no one should expect you to be either. But, we all should want to be better people. We should all want to be a little better tomorrow than we were yesterday.
I know I am still growing, and I look back on my past self with some embarrassment at times. You may feel the same way. But, that’s a good sign. It means you’re evolving and improving.
Intentionally defining your supporting brand
If you work hard to build a great reputation, it’s a real shame if the world doesn’t know you exist. That’s the same as a company creating an amazing product, but neglecting to market it. It’s pretty difficult to get customers to purchase your product if they aren’t aware of it.
The same is true for you. If you want to become an opportunity magnet that hiring managers, recruiters, etc. are constantly pinging, you’ll need to build your professional brand so that people outside of your network know about you.
Also, rather than letting your professional brand organically happen by chance, you should take control of what you want it to be. When I work with my 1-on-1 clients, I provide a workbook that helps them explore and define their professional brand and reputation. But, you can think through the following questions to start exploring yours:
What comes most naturally to you at work?
What are you good at doing?
What are you known for doing well?
How do coworkers and friends tend to describe you?
What comments have you seen in your performance reviews?
What descriptors fit your personality and feel genuine (e.g., considerate, competent, compassionate)?
How do you want to be viewed by your professional peers?
What personal attributes will help you get to the next level in your career if people believe that about you (e.g., persuasive, high potential, leadership material)?
You have to find the delicate balance between humility and confidence. No one likes a braggart. But, you won’t get ahead if you don’t seem confident, either.
You should find out how your manager, peers, and partners currently view you. See if it already fits the brand you wish to cultivate.
However, if a mismatch exists between your desired professional brand and your current reputation, you have some work to do. Take control of your brand and shape it the way you want to be perceived and remembered vs. letting it just happen.
For many years during my career, I neglected my brand and avoided marketing myself. I assumed that my good work and accomplishments would speak for themselves. For some reason, I also assumed that people would know what I had been doing with my career. Oh, how wrong I was!
I moved into management about halfway through my career, but I kept my head down and was so busy with work that I didn't have much of a presence in my industry. Even after I had first become an executive leader, I still wasn’t very active on social media and did very little speaking outside the company.
So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when people kept trying to recruit me for roles as an individual contributor, not a leader. I had a good reputation as a software designer, but their view of my professional brand was outdated. They remembered me as a senior designer and were very surprised to find out that I was now a Vice President of Design.
Yep, I had a good reputation and a strong brand, but it was wrong for who I was and what I wanted to achieve next in my career. Neglecting my professional brand didn’t do me any favors. In fact, I had to work even harder to prove that I was, in fact, a senior leader.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Intentionally craft your brand and build the evidence to support that image of you at work. Develop a career portfolio and behavior that supports the professional brand you know is best for you and employers will value.
I also recommend aligning your brand with who you really are. It's too tiring to maintain a fake persona, anyway.
Start by choosing one core attribute that you want at the center of your professional brand. It's the word you wish someone would use to fill in the blank in this statement about you:
"They are so _________!"
What single word do you want as the foundation of your professional brand? I know this is a challenging exercise. How do you boil down the essence of who you are into a single word?
But, I would bet you probably describe other people you work with this way. Here are some positive examples:
"Amy is brilliant."
"Brian is very reliable."
"Sarah is so creative."
"David is fast."
"Tina is persuasive."
You can probably think of some negative examples too. We've all worked with a few people who have a poor professional reputation, so their associated brand isn't so great. These are things you'd never want someone to say about you when you're not in the room.
Andy is a liar.
Beth is lazy.
Chris is slow.
Dani is always late.
Edward is a jerk.
After you've selected your primary brand word, create a list of secondary attributes that are also important to you. These words will enhance and extend your brand. Feel free to explore words and phrases that reflect your unique knowledge, talent, and the way you see the world.
How do other people describe you (e.g., your parents, loved ones, teachers, bosses, colleagues, peers, friends)?
How do you want people to view you?
How do you wish that people in your industry described you?
What attributes support the reputation you are building?
What descriptors will help you get hired, promoted, etc., when the decision-makers believe them about you?
Years ago, I used this same exercise to help define the brand for my solopreneur business. I considered my target audience and ideal customers. I thought about the problems they faced and the solutions they needed. Then, I brainstormed words, attributes, and descriptors that I assumed they would want to be true about someone they hired to solve their problems.
First and foremost, I wanted potential clients to view me as a very helpful person. Otherwise, no one would want to hire me.
Of course, I also had to be trustworthy and dependable.
They would want someone who listened to them.
In my case, being a bit "techie" was a helpful descriptor.
They wanted help from someone who had "been there and done that" and had learned from a wide variety of experiences (i.e., they viewed me as older and wiser).
I found this visualization helpful, so I encourage you to build one for yourself. It put my core brand attribute at the center with a "cloud" of supporting attributes around it. It helped me remember to develop and maintain a professional brand that made people feel this way about me as I built my business.k
What supporting attributes do you want around your core brand word?
Building evidence for your reputation and brand
Now that you know how you wish to be perceived, what are you doing to build and support that image? Simply claiming a professional brand is not enough. And, as I mentioned earlier, your reputation is built on your actions.
For example, over the years, I've heard many people claim they are "innovative", yet I couldn't find anything in their background that supported that claim. So, if you want your reputation to grow and people to believe in you, you need to back it up with actual evidence.
You build credibility and support for your professional reputation and brand every day. Every encounter is an opportunity to reinforce them. For example, if you claim to be a compassionate leader, act like one during challenging meetings with your employees.
Every accomplishment is your chance to elevate your professional reputation, too. If you claim to be dependable, you can't drop the ball on the work you deliver.
The proof of who you are as a professional will be reflected in:
The work you do.
How you interact with people.
Online proof (e.g., your portfolio, what you tweet, things you post).
The content you create.
How you communicate.
Spend some time objectively thinking about your desired brand and reputation. It might help to picture someone else with that same brand and reputation and ask yourself, “What would I need to see from that person to believe they are who they say they are? What proof would convince me that their reputation is warranted?” I would guess this evidence might include what they say in comments online, articles they write, videos they create, clever tweets, LinkedIn posts, testimonials from other people who know them, the work in their portfolio, etc.
Create a list of the evidence you believe will help support your desired brand and reputation. Then, make a plan to start consistently providing that evidence to the world.
How to protect your reputation
A few friends of mine have always been careful with their professional brands. They're even cautious about their behavior outside of work that could impact their brand. In this modern world of social media, instant tweets, and photos shared globally with a single tap, are you ever "off the clock"?
The people you associate with may help or harm your reputation. I've seen both happen in the corporate world.
Your actions can build your reputation. But, thoughtless behavior can also damage it (e.g., shouting at someone in a meeting).
Obviously, what you say can support your brand or damage your reputation too. That can happen during live conversations, and with the words you share online. I'm sure you've read about people who lost their jobs after posting something offensive on social media.
If you're ambitious and your career matters to you, then your professional reputation should matter to you, as well. Nurture it and protect it!
Here are a few tips that can help:
This should go without saying, but never post on social media when you are under the influence (e.g., intoxicated).
You should also avoid posting online when your emotions are running high (e.g., if you’re feeling really angry about something).
Use software that lets you post to a queue instead of pushing things live immediately. This gives you a chance to cool off and delete something you are having second thoughts about saying.
Never say anything in a meeting, email, message, etc. that you aren’t ok with being shared later. Even if you tell someone to “keep a secret,” I think we all have experienced sharing something privately that was told to someone else later.
Treat all online communications as public. Ask yourself if you’d be ok if your message was leaked later (that does occasionally happen).
I know it isn’t easy, but practice slowing down, thinking before you speak, and asking yourself if your current words and behavior support the image of the person you want to be (e.g., are you behaving like a compassionate leader in this meeting?).
Finally, deal with any negative issues immediately. You will make mistakes and you may do or say something you regret later. Apologize and make things right as soon as possible.
Occasionally, someone will misunderstand you or they may even try to damage your reputation intentionally. Welcome to the corporate world! But, don’t let things fester and get worse. Face issues head-on, constructively confront people if necessary, and set the record straight quickly.
How to rebuild your reputation
You're only human, and you will make mistakes. We all do! Unfortunately, sometimes those mistakes can damage your reputation.
However, even when that happens, all is not lost. It is possible to repair and rebuild your reputation. Some people have made remarkable comebacks after colossal failures.
I won't go into more detail here since I already wrote an article about how to do this. If you're interested, check it out.
Your professional reputation and brand matter
Applying the principles of personal branding to yourself may feel icky to you, and perhaps it should. But I hope you now see how professional branding is quite different.
It's not fake or superficial.
It's not based on a fantasy.
It's not about manipulation.
Your professional brand and reputation reflect who you really are and who you want to be. When you build it successfully, people know your name. You also climb the career ladder more quickly when you have a strong professional brand and a great reputation.
Your name will come up when new opportunities arise. When hiring managers and recruiters start making calls, you will be top of mind.
Hiding from the spotlight and hoping people discover you won't do you any favors for your career growth. If you're an ambitious professional who wants to get ahead, you must put yourself out there and be visible.
That starts with defining, crafting, and owning your reputation and brand.
Your professional reputation is what other people say about you when you’re not around.
Your brand and reputation are not the same thing, but they do impact each other.
Building a professional brand helps create the appropriate awareness of you beyond your personal network (i.e., it guides people’s perception of you before they actually meet you).
You can name and claim a professional brand, but you earn your reputation by how you live.
Your communication, actions, and behaviors can either reinforce your reputation or weaken it.
Your reputation is built on your confirmed behavioral consistency over time.
You should intentionally design your supporting professional brand to reflect and influence how you want people to think about you and what you do.
Provide evidence that helps build credibility and support for your reputation and brand every day.
Your reputation is one of your most valuable assets! You must protect and defend it.
I’m looking forward to sharing more of my book with you this year! Become a subscriber today to keep reading the draft chapters as I complete them.
Larry Cornett received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Rice University. He spent decades in the Silicon Valley tech industry as a designer, Design leader, Product executive, and startup founder. He eventually left the corporate world to start a coaching practice and now lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others create their own invincible lives. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.