Me, Myself and I: Closing the Gap Between Perception and Reality

man-and-woman-standing-on-money-featuredBy Nneka Orji

When your colleagues describe you and your abilities, do you recognise the description? Does it accurately reflect the reputation you’ve worked hard to establish or is there a chasm between how they perceive you and how you would like to be seen?

In a 2010 report by Opportunity Now, 57% of women pointed to the challenges of being seen as less committed at work as a result of also meeting personal and family commitments. This was in addition to 49% of women identifying “stereotyping and preconceptions of women’s roles and abilities” as barriers to progression. If perception plays such a significant role in female progression, surely we should be investing more time – both as organisations and individuals – in proactively addressing misperceptions.

It could be argued that organisations have gone some way in trying to tackle these gender-specific perception challenges through initiatives such as unconscious bias training, however a number of studies have shown that an individual level, women could be doing more to define and develop their brands to support their career progression. A recently published report by She Runs It, highlighted the gender divide when it comes to personal branding. Conducted with LinkedIn and EY and looking at over 4,000 companies in the media and marketing industry, the report found that on average, men in leadership roles had 15% more connections in their network than women. At every stage of their careers, women should be investing more time and effort in developing their professional networks and building stronger personal brands.

Branding for opportunities

Some readers may feel some level of cynicism or indeed a sense of dread at these words – “personal branding”. We usually associate brands with products and organisations, including brands such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Visa, and Amazon – all in the top 10 of WPP’s 2016 Top 100 BrandZ list. The idea of a personal brand may be seen as another fad trumpeted by self-proclaimed personal branding gurus, however study after study show the value in developing a personal brand.

Having a strong personal brand can open doors to new opportunities – a promotion or a new international opportunity. Even for those who have established personal brands, there may be a need to redefine your brand. According to marketing strategist and Duke University lecturer Dorie Clark, reinventing personal brand is particularly important when looking for a career change. While being an international trade expert may have served well to date, it may not be the brand that provides the best opportunities for the desired next phase of your career. In her “Reinventing Your Personal Brand” article, Dorie emphasises the importance of defining the destination, developing a clear narrative and other key considerations for a successful rebrand.

So does defining your personal brand mean reinventing yourself?

Reinventing brand vs reinventing you

According to Shelly Lazarus, the Chairman Emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather, the answer is no. Having worked with leaders across a number of organisations throughout her career, Shelly advises both women and men to ensure they are comfortable in their own skin rather than creating a brand that does not represent the individual. In her 2014 interview in Harvard Business Review, Shelly talked about the importance of resilience in every successful career and the obstacles created by an inauthentic voice and brand, particularly as women and men progress in their careers. While there may be a perception that personal brands should change with each promotion, Shelly emphasised the merits of consistency: “Brands exist in the hearts and minds of the people who use them, and if you suddenly try to switch them—which I’ve seen many corporations try to do —you alienate the customer.” The same applies to individuals.

Investing in you

Even the most cynical will hopefully acknowledge some of the merits of authentic personal branding in career progression; think of the leaders you find most inspiring and what their brand does for them. Personal branding is also critical to encouraging diverse representation across the global workforce – much needed in today’s organisations. While a quarter of a billion women have joined the workforce since 2006, according to Catalyst workforce participation rate decreased from 52.4% in 1995 to 49.6% in 2015. The report also shows that women hold only 12% of all board seats globally.

More needs to be done to reset expectations and correct misperceptions; women taking full ownership of their personal brands and clearly articulating how they would like to be perceived – not how others choose to perceive them – is an important part in the journey to more balanced representation across our organisations.

Before starting on your journey to defining and living your authentic personal brand, here are four considerations:

1. Define your brand: It is all too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and try to develop a completely new brand. However it is important to pause and acknowledge the valuable traits of your existing brand and use this as a basis to reshape your brand. If your stakeholders always look to you because you have a track record of moving ideas from concept to reality, don’t take this for granted. Maintain this unique aspect of your brand and build on it to, along with other aspects you would like to be known for.

2. Live the brand (and deliver): As the businessman Henry Ford said, “[y]ou can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Being clear in your mind about your personal brand is important, however it means nothing unless you deliver on it and establish your desired reputation amongst your colleagues and broader network. In the same way a number of the aforementioned BrandZ brands have established themselves as market disruptors and innovators, you too will need to demonstrate that you are able to live your brand by delivering on assignments and making the right impact.

3. Champion others and be championed: The She Runs It report highlighted the importance of championing others and also being championed – and men tend to champion others more proactively through endorsements than women. The report found that of the endorsements received by female professionals in leadership positions, only 30% of endorsements were made by other female professionals which compares to the 78% of endorsements made by men for other male professionals. What does this mean for you? Once you’ve developed your brand and demonstrated how you deliver on your brand, ensure you have a group of champions, including mentors, sponsors and fans, who can vouch for your credentials. Don’t forget to champion others while you are being championed.

4. Be authentic and remain consistent: Take a “me, myself and I” approach to personal branding. It is all too easy to emulate those individuals who seem to have it all, however the effort of living someone else’s brand can be all too exhausting and unsustainable. Focus on you and once you have established your own authentic brand, deliver consistently against it. Of course your brand may evolve as you progress or transition careers, but the fundamental characteristics of your brand should be unwavering.