The UK and Ireland has had one of the highest rates of home-working in Europe during the pandemic, according to labour market thinktank Eurofound. At the height of the crisis, approximately 40% of paid hours were carried out at home.
This blurred the boundaries between working from home and ‘living’ in the office, forcing many to embrace their digital image onscreen during a multitude of videocalls. BUT ... how many of us have taken the time to think about how effectively we have managed our personal brand’s transition into the virtual office environment?
In the era of digital media, individual identity has become vital and a given. From selfies to Facebook, LinkedIn to Twitter, everyone has the opportunity to create a highly visible, easily shareable brand. Now that a significant proportion of meetings have moved online, we must manage our online brand in real time. But what’s the best way to manage your personal brand to aid your professional development?
Rather than something that’s manufactured outside of yourself, your personal brand comes from your very core, your true essence. The more authentic it is, the more powerful. It is an evolving, mouldable entity and you are fully in charge of directing it. It’s about being seen, heard and understood in the right ways and in the right places. Unless you’re purposeful about how it unfolds, it could lead to an impression of you that’s misrepresentative and that doesn’t serve your goals.
Beyond the digital world
It’s easy to understand how much of your brand is crafted through your online presence. Every virtual meeting you attend, post you share, each tweet, every event you are pictured at, and all pieces of copy you publish add insight into your collection of capabilities, interests and focus. (We explore this topic further in our curating your online reputation article.)
But your brand extends far further than your digital output, more so than ever before.
It’s about your actions, your behaviour, the quality of your relationships and your values. It’s an accurate reflection of your core beliefs, passions and commitment. Like an outfit you’ve chosen, you wear it all day, everywhere you go and in every interaction you have.
In the virtual meeting room, it’s harder to nurture one-on-one relationships, to pick up on signals and to distinguish between genuine hesitation and slow connection speed. It now takes a deeper level of attunement to read subtle reactions and atmospheres, and gathering these non-verbal communication cues takes significantly longer. We have to work harder at personal connection and understanding.
What hasn’t changed is that genuine values remain your most powerful assets. Like a great product brand, a personal brand is emotional. People remember how you make them feel, more strongly than what you do. Deciding from the outset to be genuine and authentic must be your baseline.
It means you will always be a natural fit for your brand. It won't be an effort to portray it in everything you say and do, every day. As successful global companies know, a brand’s greatest power lies in the strength of its story. Good stories evoke emotion, build strong connections and win firm loyalty. They inspire people to follow.
Hang in there
When Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of global ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, shared her clear opinions on personal branding to an audience of senior professional women, she said: “What actually works is authenticity. One of the fabulous things I’ve enjoyed about my career is collaborating with so many leaders across different industries and countries, and without exception, the successful ones have been comfortable in their own skin."
“Resilience - the ability to hang in there when things are difficult - is critical in a career, and if you’re spending every hour of the day pretending to be someone you’re not, you’ll be exhausted and won’t have the energy needed to face your real work. On the flip side, if you’re genuinely excited about what you’re doing, and have that light in your eyes, it will attract other people to you, and motivate them.”
The first step towards a strong brand with an authentic story is to look inside. Define who you are, identify your unique strengths and know what you stand for.
Start from where you are now:
- What are you passionate about?
- What areas of expertise do you own?
- For what do you want to be known?
- Are you able to tell your story compellingly?
Next, look to others you trust to give you their honest opinions and impressions:
- Since the pandemic has impacted how you work, has their perception of you changed?
- What skills and qualities are ‘yours’ in your workplace?
- What is your reputation in your marketplace?
- What track record have you built?
- What do people say about you when you leave the room?
- How is this serving you best now?
- Could you benefit more from adjustments in how you are perceived?
Have confidence in your strengths and let your belief in yourself come across in a commanding, personal voice. This doesn’t need to be loud. Quiet voices can be more compelling than attention-seeking ones. Let your passion come through when it’s appropriate. Combined with your choice of actions, this will distinguish you from others.
Who needs to know you?
Once you’re clear on what your brand is, and you’ve taken steps to shape and plan how you will live it, being visible is crucial. The Ellevate Network for professional women recommends you define who needs to know you.
"As is the case with winning brands, they know their target audience inside out. They know who they are talking to and where to find them. They understand their needs and wants; on a deeper, behavioural level. Make a list of your most important customers, stakeholders, networks, societies, communities and understand what would it take to influence them."
One group of influencers is not mentioned here and that is those ahead of you in your organization and your field. This is particularly pertinent if you’re ambitious to join leadership.
The move from manager to leader is a pivotal one. It usually demands tactical adjustments to your personal brand, so you are perceived as a potential leader. Instead of keeping the show on the road, you can inspire others to do so and put your focus on leading them to new frontiers.
Strategic thinking and brave decision making are integral to leadership. Your potential to be that leader needs to come across in your personal brand. Doing so might mean stepping out of your comfort zone. As Kathy Caprino of Women@Forbes wrote recently: “If you’re not uncomfortable connecting with someone then you’re not aiming high enough.”
Upward networking will need to be part of your brand strategy, so those who can influence your road ahead recognise your powerful contribution and clearly see you as a leader.
At this level, being good at what you do is taken for granted:
- What can you portray that separates you out from others?
- Who do you align with?
- What do you associate with?
- How do you give back?
- Where do you lend support?
- How can you harness these talents in the virtual world?
Create the magic
Leadership ambition must be synonymous with an evolving personal brand. See where you’re going before others do and craft your brand accordingly. Create leadership presence and leverage it to your advantage.
Learning from past experiences, successes and mistakes always contributes to your continual reinvention and helps to renew focus at different stages of your path. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award,
"Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
The art of influencing upwards
Beyond using influence to motivate and inspire peers and those under your management, it’s as vital for your self-development to influence those up to a few levels ahead of you in your organization or wider market.
Marketing studies have shown that, when cold-emailing to look for a referral to a decision maker, success rates rise significantly when the request goes to those three or four levels ahead in a company’s hierarchy, looking for a referral down.
With that in mind, it’s important to know what’s important to your top leaders. Take their high-level strategies and deconstruct them into their elements. Is innovation most important? Brand coherence? Cost savings? What challenges are of most concern to them? Once you identify what really matters to your boss’s bosses, you can begin to make yourself relevant and present yourself as a provider of solutions to their problems.
Be clear about their expectations of you. Prepare in advance of any interaction, put emphasis on their perspective of things and, when you have the chance to shine, over-deliver.
At meetings, watch whether they want detailed hard copies or brief overviews. How often or for how long do they structure meetings? What reporting lines have they set up? Are they better listeners or readers? Once you’re familiar with how your leaders welcome and absorb information you can tailor yours to fit.
Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, is one of the world’s leading social scientists in the field of influence. With Steve Martin, Director of Influence at Work (UK), he has done extensive research into how we influence others. “In traditional hierarchical organizations, power is typically based on position. The higher you are on the organization chart, the more power you wield. The person with the power has the influence."
“Today, organizations are moving toward flatter, matrixed and team-based models. The theory is that with change and complexity comes the need to be more nimble, more inclusive of diverse thought, and more collaborative. In this model, power is more about one’s ability to influence and get things done outside of traditional reporting lines. In other words, the person with the influence has the power.”
In the virtual meeting room, it’s harder to influence others than in an in-person environment but not impossible. Influence comes from effective communication which creates a sense of connection and shared goals.
Prepare for virtual meetings as you would for those in-person. Plan what you want to get out of the meeting. Research the people you’re meeting with and prepare a couple of opening questions if you’re nervous. Arrive early for the meeting and use those few minutes to build the rapport that you would otherwise have done in person.
The six principles of persuasion
Whether you work in a traditional hierarchy or a more team-based one, influence should be ethical, sustainable and effective. Cialdini and Martin have identified six principles of persuasion that apply universally:
When they have received something first, people are significantly more likely to respond favorably to a subsequent request. Marketers know you’re more likely to buy from them when they’ve given you something previously or shared freely.
This may seem manipulative, but it doesn’t need to be. Use opportunities to give generously of your time or expertise in ways that are not expected and that come naturally, and, in time, this generosity is bound to be remembered and reciprocated. Give and take is a universal principle that people behave by.
The idea of scarcity has always been known to increase desirability. But when potential loss is pointed out instead of potential gain, people are 150% more likely to act. When Concorde announced the winding up of their New York to London route, mostly empty planes suddenly filled to capacity. In an employment situation, emphasise your uniqueness. As well as the gain in having you on the team, subtly infer the loss of your potential absence.
Credible experts have always wielded influence. It turns out, though, the messenger is what is persuasive, more than their messages. When evidence of expertise is offered before a required action, like a patient seeing a doctor’s qualification before receiving a prescription, compliance increases.
An audience listens differently when firstly made aware of a speaker’s credentials. It’s difficult to self-promote expertise. Allowing others to fill this role by introducing your credentials in advance of your presence is easier. This could be a simple one-liner on accomplishment or experience expressed by a colleague before a meeting with those you’d like to influence.
Another element of the authority principle is that when credible authority figures point out their own (minor) drawbacks or admit a small mistake this increases trust and creates a more favorable context for their authority to be accepted. You can use this to show your confident sense of responsibility and ability to deal with challenges, as well as honesty.
This principle is more useful in influencing team members or those you manage. It’s been proven that when commitments are written, especially by the people accepting such commitments, their delivery on actions is greater.
This could happen naturally at a team meeting where notes are taken. If you subsequently ask a question which mentally brings a team member into the situation where the task would be carried out, it impacts behavior even more positively, raising the chances of successful delivery.
In a survey, negotiating parties were told that time is money and that they should get straight down to business and agree on outcomes. 30% of the teams ended in deadlock. When encouraged to socially interact beforehand to exchange information and look for similarities, deadlocked outcomes dropped to 6%. Among the other 94%, both negotiating parties ended up with better financial outcomes.
In another example, M&A negotiation times reduced from around 9 months to around 6 months, saving millions, when CEOs arrived early for meetings and looked for a personal connection. Humanising all your interactions pays off substantially.
6. Social proof
Humans are a collective group in an ecosystem. Behavior that is studied tends to increase that behavior. Highlighting favorable action will help to pull others in that direction. So, providing evidence of what large numbers of people are doing that’s clearly productive, especially among a relevant group, is persuasive. This can be a useful concept to bring into presentations or proposals when you want to influence higher ranks positively.
How your personal brand can enrich your stakeholder relationships
Your personal brand has a big influence on all your professional relationships. Those with stakeholders matter more than most. Exactly which stakeholders do you need to consider?
It’s usually a broad net, including colleagues, the wider community in your organization, your sector or industry, related sectors, previous colleagues, personal contacts and, especially, leaders both within and outside of your organization that you could benefit by impressing.
To figure it out, draw your stakeholder map. Consider the impact you need to have versus the influence that they have. Those where you need to have the most impact will be those who have the most influence so will be a priority. If in doubt, there are stakeholder mapping templates available online.
Internal stakeholders first
Internally, influencing the outcome of a project positively always involves building good relationships with your stakeholders. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Jack Springman says research shows that ‘CEOs who put stakeholders’ interests ahead of profits generate greater workforce engagement, and thus deliver the superior financial results that they have made a secondary goal.”
Genuine consideration of your stakeholders’ agendas leads to the best outcome for you.
A great personal brand paves your way to set up good relations and the successful outcome that these connections lead to, will, in turn, strengthen your brand. When you are credible and inspiring, the people you collaborate with will buy into your ideas, are more open to your communication and to co-operate enthusiastically with your proposed actions, delivering the best outcomes and, ultimately, boosting your reputation.
External stakeholders too
For her thesis in the Master’s Programme in Corporate Communication, Aalto University School of Business, Helsinki, Johanna Strömsholm studied Stakeholder perspective to the personal brand in social media. The study showed that "stakeholder involvement has paramount importance for personal branding.”
“Individuals assess the value of other people’s brands in terms of the brand authenticity, uniqueness and identification, communication, as well as on the basis of the perceived personal benefits.”
Both the quantity and perceived quality of communication around personal brands seemed to have a crucial effect on their perceived value. As manager of your personal brand, this means that the calibre of your profile is determined by:
- The communication you output.
- The interplays this communication leads to.
- The perceived benefits to the reader or receiver
Just as a fire doesn’t burn without oxygen, keeping your personal brand alive means feeding it quality material consistently. The above study interestingly identifies an outside-in perspective. The personal brand is not just about your output, but also the input of stakeholders.
It proposes that “the success of personal branding is based on the individuals’ ability to deliver value primarily to others and to evoke positive reactions among them. Individuals need to acknowledge that personal branding is an on-going process of interaction, the effectiveness of which requires time and effort - not only in continuous self-development but also in compelling and credible communication.”
Creating a leadership identity
Your public persona is especially important in reaching out to those ahead of you in your profession. Use it to show yourself as leadership potential, so they have you in mind when promotions and succession planning are on the table.
Stakeholders will view your personal brand in three ways:
1. Their perceptions of the person behind your brand.
2. Their perceptions of your communication.
3. The personal benefits to them of your personal brand
Craft your communication so that it is about adding value and not self-promotion. You will promote yourself by default in an appealing way.
Leadership is about being significant, not just successful
Think about your organization, your industry and the wider market for your individual qualifications and experience. Identify who stands out. Who is important? Which leader is worth impressing? Think about the qualities you see in leaders you admire. What problems do they solve? What about them inspires those they lead? What is it about their style that put them in their position instead of other contenders?
- What examples can you use in your communication to show these or similar qualities?
- What is unique about how you think and problem-solve?
- What kind of solutions have you consistently delivered?
- When have you led a team to a better than expected outcome?
- Do you show your understanding of the issues your whole organization faces, including outside of your jurisdiction? How all functions in your company work together?
Let your conversations with those ahead of you reflect this interest and understanding.
Let the evidence of your capabilities be seen and talked about. What opportunities can you take that will allow your personal brand to reach to those you’d like to influence?
- Be visible at meetings and events and add value where you can.
- Volunteer for projects where you know you can show significant qualities
- Put forward innovative ideas.
- Post and share communication that shows and connects you with leadership traits, but only when it is authentic to you.
Build your tribe
Finally, build your tribe, so you have as large a support structure as possible in place before you reach a top position.
- Foster authentic relationships with peers, both formal and informal.
- If working remotely, make extra effort to pick up the phone to connect with others informally, just as you might drop by their office to say hi in person
- Use the six principles of persuasion to build influence among those you work and interact with.
- Find mentors and coaches who offer informed, objective perspectives and can give relevant guidance when you need it.
- Cultivate followers to show that you can gather and hold the interest and loyalty of a group.
Check out the other insightful articles in our Career Strategies series. To shorten the odds of landing the executive position you want, start your search now and check out our advertised opportunities here.
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