Personal branding is a long game. It’s more of a journey than a destination. It’s not a once and done. And it’s about character and how you show up in the world. These are two powerful truths about personal branding. To illustrate these points, I’d like to share some of my personal experiences.
First truth. It’s not about what you think about your personal brand, it’s about what others think of you.
In other words, your brand is your reputation. As the famous quotation by Jeff Bezos goes “What do they say about you when you’re not in the room?”. Because your brand will evolve over time, you want to monitor parts of you that change (e.g., your areas of expertise) but also things that are tried and true about you (e.g., you are always five minutes late). It’s necessary to have a pulse on how others perceive your brand. The best way to do this is to ask for feedback.
There are multiple ways to go about gathering input. You can informally crowdsource your close connections to ask, “What are three words you would use to describe me?” and see what words consistently come to their minds. Maybe you have old performance reviews, and you can see themes in the comments that repeat? If you’d rather use a more formal process, Dorie Clark shares advice on conducting your own 360 here. In addition, there are lots of other academic assessment tools and methods such as the Johari window exercise.
One method I have used multiple times in the past has been the 360Reach, created by personal branding pioneer William Arruda. It’s a fun tool used to measure how others see you. Because the framework has already been created and allows for anonymous responses, it offers a good starting point. This free tool also offers a premium version, and you can hire someone who is 360Reach certified to help you interpret it.
Let me walk you through the process. After setting up a 360Reach account, you enter the e-mails of people you have chosen, and the system sends them a questionnaire. It asks each person to select words that describe you and your strongest skills. There are many options, but the person must choose a limited number. Finally, you choose two out of four questions that provide metaphorical data. For example, your respondents are asked to characterize you in unusual ways such as “If Paula was a dog, what breed would she be?” or “If Paula was a car, what model would best describe her?” You can extrapolate the answers that appear repeatedly and trust that these words express what most people think about your personal brand.
Here are two quick tips if you give this a try. 1) Line up who you will ask before you register because there is only a 14-day window to collect the data in the free version. 2) If you are doing this for your career, ask more professionals than family members. Close relatives may see you in a more limited way and not understand your strengths in a work setting.
In case you’re wondering, when I have conducted 360Reach surveys before, I have found that people overwhelmingly see me as a dependable, efficient, positive, and organized person. I am seen as a rock and truthteller who inspires others and shares knowledge. For the symbolic questions, I’m described as a Honda Accord, or a Subaru and I definitively show up as a Labrador retriever.
Second truth: Branding is a long-term effort.
When I first started my own business of Brand Career Management in 2011, I quickly found my niche as a LinkedIn expert. I embraced this and still firmly believe that most people need to be on LinkedIn for effective career management. To build this brand, I consistently spoke and wrote about LinkedIn. I gave presentations and delivered trainings around this topic and wrote a regular column called the LinkedInsider for three years. By 2015, most people in my network thought of me when they saw mentions of LinkedIn and individual and organizational clients sought me out for this expertise.
My brand was solidified, for a moment. I could see how my past actions had led to the opportunities coming my way that aligned with my desire to focus on LinkedIn. However, after establishing that reputation, I realized that something was missing. I still love to educate others on how to use LinkedIn effectively, but I decided to re-focus my brand on who I serve, rather than one career management tool. I wanted to evolve my brand. After deep introspection and taking time to notice when I was at my best, I realized I had developed a passion for inspiring women in the middle of their careers. To attract more of my ideal clients, I changed how I was communicating about myself.
My first bold action in rebranding efforts came in 2018, when I changed my LinkedIn headline to include “Empowering mid-career to executive women”. While this may seem small, it was a big step for me to finally publicize my truth. Around the same time, I began attending more in-person and virtual events (before and during the pandemic) geared to professional women. In 2019, I launched a new website with only images of professional women. For the past few years, I led a group of colleagues to offer free educational events in honor of International Women’s Day (IWD), I ran a LeanIn Circle, and I dove deeply into women’s career concerns. Over time, these changes in my communications and networking have paid off. In 2020, opportunities to work with organizations focusing on women’s empowerment started to come my way. And just the other day, a new client said she found me by Googling “Career Coaches who help women”. These signs let me know that my rebranding efforts are bringing a return on my investment. But my story also illustrates the long-term nature of branding. It took multiple years to establish myself as a LinkedIn expert. Then it took a few more years to tweak my brand and focus it on my favorite audience.
As you can see, personal branding is a long-term game. You can’t change the direction of a large ship quickly. It takes lots of little steps over time. Branding is also based on the foundation of feedback. You need to know when your message is being heard or when you are veering off course. I hope my stories inspire you to reflect on your brand and to take a step forward in your personal branding journey.
P.S. I’d like to give a shout out to author Dorie Clark who just released her latest book, The Long Game. Her book shares many ideas and strategies around the idea of building your brand over the long term. I was honored to be a part of her launch team and would encourage you to buy a copy. I’ve read it and loved it. You can see my review here.