It’s Not About You: What You Really Need to Know About Your Personal Brand

In 1997, business guru Tom Peters wrote an article for Fast Company, “The Brand Called You.” The timing for this revolutionary concept was especially powerful for me, as a recent college graduate just beginning  my career.

Now, I know the phrase “personal brand” can turn some people off (much like the word “networking.”) If it sounds too salesy or buzzwordy to you, I totally understand; all we’re talking about it is the concept of professional reputation.

No matter what you choose to call it, here are three truths I’ve learned about personal branding:

It’s not about you; it’s about how others see you.

Every one of us has to be proactive in creating our persona – you don’t want to leave how people see you up to chance.

And that’s where my take on personal branding is a little different from most others. You might have your own ideas and desires for your personal brand, but if that’s not how people see you, it doesn’t matter what you think. Their perception of your personal brand is the reality.

And if you’re a millennial, you might have an even greater hurdle: Fair or not, many people have preconceived notions about what a millennial is even before they meet you (see: entitled, narcissistic, tech-addicted), and you have to overcome those negatives.

It’s up to you to find out how people see you.

Before you can change their perception, you have to know what it is. Here’s an exercise: Make two lists, the first with three words or statements you think others would say about you (i.e., your current personal brand), and the second with three things you want them to say about you (i.e., your ideal personal brand). Determine if there’s crossover, and then choose tangible actions you can take to project more of the attributes on the second list. I do this exercise in my Millennial training programs and it can have very powerful results.

If you’re not sure what people would say about you, it’s time for some sleuthing. One strategy is to check out your LinkedIn endorsements to see attributes others are ascribing to you. It’s not an exact science; but, for example, I would be concerned if I wasn’t being endorsed for “public speaking” or “leadership,” because I consider those to be important components of the reputation I’ve worked hard to build.

If your company does annual reviews, another way to determine your current reputation is to pay close attention to your manager’s or colleagues’ feedback and the words or phrases they use to describe you. (If you don’t have a review coming up, you can work up your courage to directly ask trusted friends or colleagues how they perceive you as a professional.)

Why are other people’s perceptions so important? Because it’s often hard to judge ourselves honestly. A friend who started her career in a busy PR agency prided herself on “getting it all done,” and was completely blindsided when her supervisor complimented her on her results, but then added, “You always have a little flurry surrounding you, like you’re stressed or late.” That really gave her pause: Her good work was being negated by her frenetic style. Based on that feedback, she started coming in earlier to ensure she had ample time to complete her work more calmly and planning ahead to alleviate last-minute rushes.

It’s never too early — or too late.

Whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned executive, an entrepreneur or a manager, it’s wise to take stock of your personal brand, knowing that it will have a significant effect on your professional success. And, remember that as you mature in your career, your personal brand is likely to evolve as well.

As Peters said in his article that introduced the world to the concept, “Regardless of age, regardless of position, regardless of the business we happen to be in, all of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

These words still ring true today, and the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to assess and recalibrate.

How has your personal brand evolved with your career? Let me know in the comments!

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, and the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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