I am occasionally asked to speak to groups about personal branding. I understand why, as I teach executive presence, leadership and communications. But I’m not overly comfortable with the term. It feels less than genuine, smacks of crass self-promotion. It feels fake and Machiavellian. Typical advice for building your personal brand would include: make yourself more visible; attend networking events; find a senior executive to act as a mentor; choose to speak up at least once per meeting; dress for success; be active on your LinkedIn account. While I’m sure those are all valuable things to do, if you clicked on this article, it’s probably because you don’t want to do those things. You know you should, but you’re just not comfortable doing it.
And yet, it is absolutely true that we need to take ownership over our careers. We need to advocate for ourselves. Simply doing a good job and hoping someone else notices is not a good strategy. I deal with clients all the time who need to be more visible and more vocal. I often deal with IT or tech executives who don’t do a good job of communicating their value within the organization and so are perceived negatively because they only speak up when there’s a problem. Many of my clients are seen as highly effective at their jobs, but not as leaders. A client put it perfectly recently – “I’m seen as the person who gets shit done.” One of the worst examples I can remember came from my years as a theatre director. I was involved in a casting process for a very important and complex role. I remember sitting at a table with the playwright, the artistic director and a huge stack of photo resumes. We were sorting the resumes into Yes/No/Maybe piles for who we would invite to audition. Once that was complete, we went through the Maybe pile, looked at the resume and asked each other what we knew about the actor. All it took was for one person to say, “Difficult to work with”, and it went into the ‘No’ pile. Or, “I saw her at an opening night party recently and I think she could be really interesting”, and it went into the ‘Yes’ pile. Fair? No. Good casting policy? No. But that’s what happened. Reputation and profile matter.
So, I am going to discuss how you can reconcile the need to build a good reputation (I’m going to use the word reputation rather than brand) with the less pleasant aspects of self-promotion. And more specifically, since my field is communications, how you can use communication opportunities to build a positive reputation and increase your profile in a way that has integrity. My central argument is simple: treat every communication as a leadership opportunity. This is easier said than done, but when you come to realize that every e-mail, every conversation, every meeting and every presentation is a leadership opportunity, that is the moment your career will start to change. Must of us don’t think that way. We focus on what the communication is about rather than what the opportunity is. We need to start with the mindset that all communications offer leadership opportunities. As always, I like to focus on practical ways of achieving this:
- Speak up – when you have something to say
- Provide solutions
- Be assertive
- Be nice
Focus on ideas rather than information
If you look at most of your day-to-day communications, they tend to lend themselves to information dumps. We are constantly providing updates – on timelines, deliverables, KPIs, status, budget – pure information. When I coach clients, they often state that their goal is to ensure that when they speak that the audience receives their message. The problem is that they rarely recognize the opportunity to deliver a message. I’m going to offer two examples, because this point is critical.
When you’re an Executive Communications Coach, part of life is being cancelled on. Senior executives are incredibly busy and ‘coaching session with the ex-actor’ tops the list of things to reschedule. One day, the CTO of a wireless communications firm called me to reschedule. He was very nice, and positioned it as, “I don’t really have anything coming up, so I’m not sure it’s a good use of our time.” I’m not sure what got into me that day, but my response was, “Of course we can reschedule, but when you say you don’t have anything coming up, what do you mean? Aren’t you going to work tomorrow? Dialling in to a call? Sending an e-mail? Your life is a never-ending series of things coming up. What you just said suggests to me that you’re not capitalizing on the opportunities that are all around you.” There was a lengthy silence while I’m sure he contemplated firing me. But he ended up keeping the session and we used it to go through his Outlook, meeting by meeting, call by call. Each time we looked at who the audience was, what the opportunity was and we built a mini-structural outline of message and supporting arguments. Every single interaction was an opportunity.
Let me give you a second example. I was recently coaching a VP in the legal department of a large financial institution. He had been asked to talk to a group of leaders within the business about an upcoming regulatory change and what impact it would have on them. Mostly, they wanted to be told what to do, but my client said that he couldn’t offer any definitive answers as there was a lot of grey area in the new regulations. His original approach was to give a bit of an information dump on the regulatory changes but knew he couldn’t really offer the audience what they wanted to hear, which was what it would mean for them. I asked him what I ask all my clients, which is, “If there was one idea you want the audience to walk away believing, what would it be?” He thought about the question, and then answered, “That all the other financial institutions have to adapt to these changes, and if we handle it well, it could offer us a competitive advantage. And the legal department is here to help.” By focusing on convincing the audience of an idea rather than simply transferring information, he turned his talk into a leadership opportunity.
So, how does this example affect my client’s reputation? Well, in the first instance, if he had simply provided an overview of the regulatory changes without much direction on how it would affect the business, he would likely have been seen as an expert, with perhaps a negative twinge of “why can’t lawyers ever give you a straight answer?!” In the latter instance where he argued that the right response to the changes could provide a competitive advantage and that legal was there to help, he was probably seen as providing value to the business and a big-picture strategic thinker (who also knows his stuff).
Speak up – when you have something to say
Knowing when to speak up and when to shut up is a bit of an art. There is a common conception within organizations that there are people who just like the sound of their own voices and as annoying as they are, they are the ones that get promoted. I don’t know if this is true or not. I’ve never had a client tell me that they like the sound of their own voices. And I don’t know if they actually do get promoted more. But I know that this is a very common perception, and that it cuts to the very heart of the dilemma of personal branding – that in order for me to succeed, I have to be like people I don’t like or respect very much, or else I have to accept my lot in life and become increasingly cynical about the way things work.
If we accept that communication situations are leadership opportunities, it follows that if we choose not to speak up then we are choosing not to lead. Conversely, if we are talking too much, then we are making it about ourselves, which isn’t leadership either. The yardstick for deciding if and when to speak up in meetings is making this about the other people in the meeting rather than about yourself. Ask yourself: “Will speaking my thought help us come to a positive outcome?” If the answer is yes, then you have a responsibility to speak. If the answer is no, you have a responsibility to not speak.
Knowing when to speak will help you be seen as a valued contributor. When we are focused on positive outcomes, people start to see us leaders, so that when we do speak, others listen. This is the type of reputation we want to build.
Focus on solutions
This one should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be. The person who simply articulates a problem will be seen as negative and lacking in leadership qualities. In fact, that person is often someone with experience who knows why an idea is stupid and won’t work. I had a client once who was a very seasoned executive in structuring strategic outsourcing deals. He had a side gig where he would listen to the presentations of a graduating MBA class and then give feedback as to why their ideas wouldn’t work in the real world. He was a paid curmudgeon. But his experience was invaluable.
The key is to be able to accurately articulate a problem and then provide a solution which addresses the challenges presented. How to present solutions is a question of structuring what you say. Start off with your thesis (message) – “We need to restructure our Quality Assurance group so that accountability resides with the individual teams.” Follow this up by telling them how you’re going to structure your arguments – “I’m going to walk through why the current structure isn’t working and then propose a solution that will improve our results and is simple to implement.” Telling the audience upfront that you are going to address the problem and then provide a solution will change how they listen. They will be more willing to listen to the negatives when they know there is a solution coming. This approach works equally well when making a presentation or giving bad news to your boss.
One frustrating aspect of human nature is that we often don’t ask for what we want and then become frustrated when we don’t get it. We tend to operate as if people can read our minds and we hope that they behave in the way we want them to. Being clear and assertive upfront is a skill that everyone needs to learn. One of the seminal books in communications was Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, published in 2002. In it, the authors discuss how we tend to swing between silence and violence – we avoid having difficult conversations until the stakes are extremely high and then we explode or react violently (metaphorically). Being able to have difficult conversations before they become problems is an essential skill. Our culture of e-mail correspondence has exacerbated this problem. It is much easier to avoid an e-mail than it is to avoid someone face to face, or conversely to engage in a snarky e-mail exchange, which is simple a digital form of silence versus violence.
Being assertive means asking for what you want, not avoiding issues and choosing to have difficult conversations upfront. If you do this, you will develop the respect of the people around you. If you want to build a personal brand, you could do much worse than having a reputation as a straight-shooter, someone who is clear and fair.
One of the easiest things you can do is be nice. This doesn’t mean being a pushover or avoiding conflict at all costs. It simply means being pleasant. Even friendly. Or helpful. Generous. Considerate. This is easy to do when the other person is being nice, it is more difficult when the other person is being less than friendly. When we get into oppositional or conflictual situations, a trick our brain plays on us is to assign the most negative motivations possible to the other individual. In which case, us being unpleasant is justified and simply a response to their behaviour – or at least that’s what our brain tells us. I would suggest that it is exactly in those difficult situations where we need to be nice. Solid relations are built through difficult times, not when everything is easy. If you are able to be nice, while at the same time being assertive and solutions-oriented, you will be able to navigate difficult situations and build a positive reputation for yourself. You will be someone others want to be around (or even report to).
I know this isn’t the typical advice around personal branding. But when we treat communication situations as leadership opportunities, not surprisingly, we come to be seen as leaders. The thing about the suggestions I have made in this article is that they need to work in tandem: being assertive without being focused on solutions, or without being nice can create a negative image. Being nice without speaking up will make you be seen as a non-contributor, or a pushover. They all need to work together. As always, my suggestion is to prepare for your communications. Prepare for your career discussion with your leader by jotting down a few notes beforehand. Prior to dialling in to a difficult project meeting, make some notes for yourself articulating both the problem and the solution. Before sending an e-mail, re-read it from the receiver’s point of view. This allows us to respond to the leadership opportunity rather than simply react to the situation. When we do this, we build the reputation of a leader, which is an excellent brand to have.