When you started your career, you probably took on as many opportunities as possible to build your skills and discover your strengths and preferences. As a high-performer, you soon found your sweet spot and started to excel.
When you are great at something, you’ll find yourself with more opportunities than you have time. Now the previously successful, say-yes-to-everything approach begins to hurt you. Not only will you be overwhelmed, but the more serious consequence is that you’ll end up confusing others about your brand.
To continue your success, you need to build and more importantly, maintain a strong brand.
Brands are the shortcuts people use to make decisions. When you buy Coca-Cola or a BMW, you know exactly what you’re getting. When people “buy” you, how sure are they about the quality they’ll get from you? The more uncertain they are, the more likely they’ll invest their time, money and energy with someone else.
To build your brand, take control of how others experience you:
- How you look and make others feel
- What you say and do (and how you say and do it)
- Where you are and are not
Before we look at how you can manage other people’s perceptions in these three areas, you must first be clear on your brand. If you’re not sure, a quick and easy way to get started is to ask yourself:
What adjectives do I want
[my target audience or ideal client]
to think about when they think about me and my work?
Take a few minutes and write down 3-4 adjectives you want your target audience to use to describe you. If you don’t have a target audience yet, think about the individuals you enjoy working and interacting with most often. For me, I want high-performing leaders to describe me as practical, focused on excellence, caring and thoughtful.
To build a strong recognizable brand, consistency is key. It’s not enough that you see yourself as the adjectives you’ve chosen, you need others to see you that way as well.
So how do you ensure others will use the same adjectives you chose to describe you?
Below are practical tips based on my work with leaders at Fortune 500 companies and top academic universities:
How you look and make others feel
Think back to an event where you took notice of someone you didn’t know.
The first thing you probably did was to size them up based on what you saw – their dress, their body language and the response they received from others. Processing this visual information, you guessed at their seniority, level of success, job function, etc. This judgement helps you decide whether you want to engage and learn more about them.
If you decide not to engage, then your impression is solely based on what you’ve seen. If you do approach them, you begin to fine tune or correct your assumptions based on what you hear and see during your interaction.
This automatic tendency to judge based on what we see is natural and a survival instinct. You do it to others and people do it to you all the time. The challenge is that as you become more successful, the amount of time people have to get to know you at a deeper level drops dramatically. They will judge you based on what they see and the little they know and unfortunately, you won’t be able to correct any faulty assumptions.
Think of your senior executives or the President of your country (if you’re already a senior executive). How much do you really know about them? Probably not too much yet you might already have a strong judgment about the type of person they are.
This is why you need to manage how people see you and look the part you want to play. When people see you, will they automatically assume you work with people like them and exude the adjectives you’ve chosen? How close do you match up to what they are expecting? If you show up to Facebook with a dark suit and tie and talk about the work you do with Silicon Valley tech companies, don’t be surprised if people suspect your credibility.
Disney does a great job tightly controlling your experience with them. Everyone I’ve spoken to about Disney, use very similar adjectives: over-the-top service, awesome experience and not cheap. For those who haven’t experienced Disney firsthand, there is a high probability that you’ll have a great time when you do go.
When others interact with you, what do you want them to walk away remembering and feeling? How do you want to emotionally connect with them? What would you like them to say to their network about you? Is it consistent with the adjectives you’ve chosen?
To practically influence how others experience you, be thoughtful about:
What you say and do (and how you say and do it)
Your physical appearance, words and actions make up the experience others will have of you.
We’ve covered what people see, now let’s focus on your words and actions. Do they align with how you want others to see you? Are you using words that resonate with your target audience and does your vocabulary match what they are expecting from you?
How do you say what you say? What does your tone, speaking rhythm, accent and energy say to others? Powerful people tend to speak more deliberately. British accents tend to sound more sophisticated. Passionate people tend to speak with more energy. These are all ways people can interpret how you talk.
Now for your actions. What activities are you engaged in and do they help others see you the way you want to be seen?
For example, if you take copious notes during a meeting, people will likely see you as being a junior employee (unless you’re Richard Branson).
Other questions to consider:
- When speaking at conferences, what topics are you speaking on?
- What books are you reading?
- Do you take on projects that are consistent with your brand?
Which leads me to the last area of focus.
Where you are and are not
When you’re successful, people want to enlist you to help them. This means countless partnership or speaking requests, special project proposals and event or board invitations. As a high performer, you’ll be tempted to help especially with requests from those close to you in your network.
Before you say “yes” to any opportunity, ask yourself:
How consistent is this activity with the reputation I want?
When managing your brand, knowing where you shouldn’t be is just as important as knowing where you should be. If you’re building a reputation as an expert on disruptive technologies in manufacturing, it’ll be confusing if others see you frequently speak on investing and personal finance, even if you can give quality advice on those topics.
Again, to build a brand that people recognize, you must be consistent. People have to have a similar experience every time for an extended period before they begin to automatically associate you with your brand.
This means better allocating your limited time by saying “no” to opportunities that won’t allow you to exude the adjectives you’ve chosen. When you attend an event that is either neutral or negative in building your brand, you’re essentially saying “no” to an event or activity that can positively enhance your reputation.
The same idea extends to the people you associate with and your environment. You will be judged by the company you keep and where you spend your time. If you spend a lot of time with innovative people, others will assume you’re innovative. Some people assume Googlers, Google employees, are smart and quirky despite never working at Google or meeting a Googler. Others assume those in labor-intensive roles are less-educated.
Look closely at where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with. Would your surroundings make a strong case for your desired image or is it something you need to hide?
Take time to architect your brand.
One tip is to study characters on TV or film. Great actors believably take on different character roles. The way they do it is by understanding what people expect from a certain character and matching their look, feel, actions and environment to the mainstream expectation. Professors wear tweed, sport beards and drive Toyotas. High-powered businessmen wear custom suits, gel back their hair and have chauffeurs. Bankers wear ties. Consultants don’t. The list goes on.
Decide on the brand you want and find an actor or actress that believably exudes those qualities. How does he or she look, act and make others feel? How is their environment portrayed? Get specific on the behaviors and mimic them.
It’s not easy to build a brand. That’s why the good ones are worth so much.