Most professionals spend hours trying to land a dream job, but once they secure a job, they allow their career to take its own direction. This laissez-faire approach to career development can make sense when you’re just starting in a job or industry because you need to focus on proving you can deliver high-quality work.
However, once you achieve a measure of competence, you should look to transition from the passenger to the driver seat of your career. As the driver, you proactively determine how you want your career to progress and then you make a plan to realize that vision.
The Importance of Building Your Personal Brand
The key to proactively directing your career is developing a personal brand. A brand is an identifying mark like those burned on livestock. Your brand is what people in your professional space think about when they think about you – it’s your identifying marks.
Everyone has a brand within their network, but many have acquired their brand rather than built it. This is what happened to me when I started as an analyst at a top consulting firm. I was good at quantitative analytics and during an early client case, I built a complicated projection model that the client loved. This quickly earned me the ‘Excel guy’ reputation – the one to ask to do any complicated quantitative/modeling work.
This was great for a few years as I moved up the ranks as an individual contributor, but as I entered the promotion window for a team leader role, this brand became a liability. Managers continually tasked me with quantitative modeling work rather than more nuanced, client-facing work. I was stuck in a brand I didn’t try to build: create good models, get assigned to make more models.
When discussing this topic, a partner in the firm told me that I could either pick a job that allowed me to be an analyst for years to come or rebrand and pursue the team leader role. I decided to rebrand, picking 4 new brand pillars for which I would try to become known.
Selecting Your Brand Pillars
In less than a year, I had successfully rebranded and gotten promoted to a team leader role. My rebranding began by determining what I wanted my future brand to be. To determine your brand, you’ll want to think about what you want people to think about when they think about you. Those identifying marks will be your brand pillars.
You’ll want to consider identifying brand pillars in each of the following areas:
- Issue areas/topics your company focuses on
- External capabilities (skills that are seen by people outside your company)
- Internal capabilities (skills that are seen and felt by people inside your company)
It is good to have 1-2 pillars in each of these areas so that you’re defining how people think of you in each context you find yourself in at work. I picked 4 brand pillars that span these categories:
- Diabetes prevention (issue area/topic)
- Creative facilitation techniques (external capability)
- Coaching and developing people (internal capability)
- Productivity and efficiency (internal capability)
Building Your Brand
Once you’ve selected brand pillars, you can begin developing a plan to build a brand around each pillar. To build a strong brand, you’ll want to move through 4 different phases:
Phase 1: Develop Understanding
In phase 1, your goal is to develop an understanding of the pillar. For example, for diabetes prevention, I learned all I could about the projects my firm did related to diabetes prevention. I set up a Google Alert to get notified whenever new articles came out on the topic and subscribed to relevant newsletters. I tried to attend any webinars on the topic by industry leaders.
To develop understanding, you want to determine 3 things:
- What or who are the key sources of information in this pillar?
- What are the language or terms used to communicate about this pillar?
- What is a high-level framework or mental model that provides a structure for the pillar?
An understanding of these 3 elements of a pillar will enable you to build expertise and communicate like a veteran. As you gain knowledge in your pillar, you can demonstrate your interest in a space by sharing articles or other information you obtain in your learning with those working in the space – if you think it may be news to them.
Phase 2: Build a Track Record of Work
While phase 1 is about learning, phase 2 is about doing. The goal of phase 2 is to add bullet points to your resume that demonstrate experience in this pillar. For example, when I found myself leading a small team with a partner who believed in me, I decided to structure the client engagement to create opportunities for creative facilitation. Because I was one of the first managers to do this, I quickly became known for this skill despite being a junior manager at the time.
Because you’ll likely lack experience when you begin phase 2, you may need to volunteer for pillar-focused opportunities or do them on top of your normal workload. Your leaders may not want to use your on-the-clock hours in an area you lack experience, but they will likely accept your help if it’s “free.” When I was trying to establish a track record of diabetes prevention work, I volunteered to take notes for a partner who was advising the CDC on their strategic plan to prevent diabetes. The volunteer opportunity turned into an incredible opportunity to write the CDC’s strategic plan on the topic – an opportunity I would have never gotten if I had waited to be staffed on the project or had requested an allocation for the work.
Phase 3: Establish Thought Leadership
The next step of building a brand is sharing what you’ve learned from building a track record of work. This is an exponential step that rapidly expands the number of people who know your brand. In phase 2, you may only make your brand known to those working with you. In phase 3, you expand your brand to anyone interested in that pillar.
Here are 3 examples of how I did this.
- I volunteered to share what I had learned about creative facilitation techniques during a company-wide meeting.
- After winning the Coach of the Year award, I wrote a Coaching Manifesto and posted it to our firm’s intranet.
- After figuring out how to cut my hours by ~20%, I hosted an interest meeting to share what I had learned with my peers.
You can start in this phase by sharing what you’ve learned from your record of work, but over time, you’ll need to lean into additional research and thinking to generate new insights for the pillar.
Phase 4: Launch Initiatives
Brand leaders create the future of their pillars. They do this, in part, by sharing insights that guide future action, but they also, ultimately, do this by identifying the path forward in the field and then marshaling the resources to begin progress toward that future vision.
In coaching, I started a Coaching Fellowship where all former Coach of the Year awardees would select one applicant to mentor in the ways of coaching. In productivity, I ran a personal productivity pilot with my peers that expanded to a 3-office initiative and monthly working sessions.
If you work in a medium to large organization, you may think that you should wait for those above you to create and generate the future of the brand pillars you have selected – but in almost all corporate cultures, waiting is a recipe for losing brand value. Good leaders are looking for people to step up in areas they are passionate about and bring forth a better future.
Selecting your personal brand and then pursuing it intentionally makes your work more fulfilling because you are directing your future in the direction you want it to go. If you need help identifying the right brand pillars for you or figuring out how to move up through these phases, email us or set up a time to talk.