The uncomfortable truth about personal branding

Perception matters.

There, I said it.

I know. It doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t hiring, funding and buying decisions be made based on substance?

Yes, it’s true that substance DOES matter, too. If you can’t back up what you say you can do with action, people will very quickly figure out you’re not being authentic. But, someone’s perception of you begins to form from that very first impression they have of you.

Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and the author of Presence, has conducted research into the science of first impressions and found that in less than a second of initially meeting someone, we are already making judgments about how trustworthy and competent they are.

Acknowledging that this is how quickly people tend to develop an impression of you (and that their perception matters in terms of their willingness to hire, invest in or buy from you) provides you with the opportunity to use this fact to your advantage—to influence outcomes in your favor.

Personal Branding = Influence

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share a story from my corporate past.

Many years before I became a leadership coach and began to help other individuals clarify their personal brands, I worked as a management consultant.

I had been with this firm for almost two years, and I was interested in a promotion. And before I understood the power of a personal brand, I relied on my work ethic to represent me. I was reliable, put in long hours with my clients and would come back to the office in the evenings to do extra work.

But because I was often off site, working with clients most of the week, I also tried to engage with my consulting colleagues through Friday afternoon desserts; I would bake and bring in a treat for the team and invite anyone who could attend to have a chat and a slice of cake before we left for the weekend.

When I went after my promotion, I put together a business case outlining all the ways I added value to the team and eagerly awaited the decision from the managing partners at the firm. But when my boss finally sat me down to share their decision she said straight to my face, “Aenslee, the partners at this firm want to promote a future partner, not the team mom.”

My jaw dropped.

I was stunned to discover that’s how I was perceived in my company—it wasn’t the perception I wanted to cultivate at all, and more importantly, it wasn’t useful in helping me achieve my goal of earning a promotion.

I learned that ultimately, your personal brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what others say it is.  That moment certainly taught me the power of intention when it comes to personal branding.

I realized that working hard and adding value wasn’t necessarily enough to make the right impression if the only time the partners interacted with me was when I was literally handing them a plate of cookies—I had to be more strategic.

I had made the mistake of (mis)using my infrequent, but valuable in-person opportunities to brand myself as a team player. But that wasn't what was most enticing to my audience (the partners) in influencing them to give me a promotion. That’s just not what they valued.

Once I picked my jaw off the floor and recovered from the shock of being told I wasn’t getting the promotion, I asked for feedback. Then, I took that feedback and used it to rebrand myself as I applied for the promotion I was after at another consulting firm.

This time, I focused solely on sharing information that would showcase how I was ideally suited to the role (which meant I refrained from mentioning my very fine baking skills throughout the recruiting process).

Since attention spans are shrinking and your audience is inundated with information, it’s important to remember that your personal brand isn’t everything about you. It should be strategically and authentically curated to influence your audience in your favor, so you can achieve the goal you want.

The beauty of your personal brand is you have a choice. You just need to be specific and succinct in conveying what you have to offer.

In my case, from my research I knew the hiring manager at the competitor consulting firm I was applying to was looking for a “safe pair of hands” to develop business cases for their clients’ infrastructure projects so I chose to only share stories and examples from my work history during the interview that helped make my case that I was the “safe pair of hands” they needed.

Even though I had a diverse range of expertise in team building, diversity initiatives and more, I didn’t share examples from my experience that exemplified those skills. I did talk about specific project management and engineering experiences from my background that showcased how I could be relied on and trusted to deliver on time and on budget.

By showcasing how I was ideally suited for the role, I ended up being awarded the position AND offered a 40% higher salary. People are willing to pay a premium for things they value highly.

It’s time to acknowledge that perception matters so you can harness its power to influence others and achieve your goals.

Your personal brand is a choice—make a strategic one.