We all have a personal brand, whether we realize it or not. Your personal brand is what you are known for and what people say about you when you’re not in the room.
But you don’t get much training in college or graduate school on how to recognize your brand-or how to hone it.
Women especially often struggle to cultivate and share a brand that may look different from those in power in their companies. With most organizational leadership historically dominated by white men, women and women of color might hesitate to highlight anything different than what they see in their current leadership ranks.
But if you don’t focus on cultivating your brand and sharing it, you risk not connecting to others. There’s many ways to hone and share your brand and there is no one way you have to do it-just find a way that feels authentic to you.
A Thomson Reuters diversity conference I attended a few years ago featured three different women discussing how important branding had been to successfully embarking on different trajectories in their careers.
Branding Your Femininity
Carolyn Leonard, Co-Founder and CEO of DyMynd, discussed how she combatted the sexist and hostile reception she received as one of the first women traders on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade — by using her being a woman and her femininity to her advantage. “I chose to be a first-rate woman because I was always going to be a 2nd-rate man.” Leonard also used her clothing as a weapon, dressing in beautiful bright suits and 3- or 4-inch steel heel stilettos every day. “I considered clothes more than clothing, but what I needed to go to war. I needed power to survive in the environment the men created for me in the profession I chose.”
The other secret benefits to steel-heeled stilettos were how an unfortunate “accident”, when she stepped on another trader’s foot, led to her obtaining a key spot on the trading floor not only with a wide berth by fearful competitors but also fortuitously in a location where she could both hear and feel buy orders rapidly increasing. Leonard humorously gives “all credit to the shoe department at Neiman Marcus.”
Leonard also noted that men on the floor bought into her branding so much they would come over to see exactly what she was wearing that day — but of course they had business to transact and would end up doing business with her.
As time progressed, Leonard became known as a strong, successful woman and an advocate for other women, because she understood the power and strength of appearance.
“Being a woman means being feminine but strong, that I have integrity, and that I have an ability to stand up for myself and others who cannot.” — Carolyn Leonard
Branding Your Integrity & Accountability
Branding yourself for your integrity and accountability can lead to new paths in your career as well, especially when suffering a failure or setback.
Suzanne Rich Folsom, currently Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Philip Morris International, noted that once she failed in her pursuit of anti-corruption efforts in a foreign country because she misread the political winds. But after that and serving through one or two other crises, she became known as someone who would do the right thing no matter what. She also found that the people around her began to think of her for other crisis positions.
Karen Gray, now Executive Vice-President, Human Resources of A+E Networks, recalled how taking accountability for a mistake as a junior associate and calling it to a partner’s attention, not only impressed the partner but led to the mid-level associate on the same matter taking an interest in her career and actively looking for opportunities to promote Gray’s advancement. An associate in the audience agreed, noting that the opposite is very effective too — a partner who had the managerial courage to take responsibility with a client for a large mistake she had made as a junior associate made the associate develop deep loyalty to the partner. Now as a mid-level associate, she models that same behavior for her junior associates.
You can tinker with your brand somewhat but cannot be inauthentic or try to become someone you are not.
Gray noted too that you can tinker with your brand somewhat but cannot be inauthentic or try to become someone you are not. Folsom agreed, warning that as you move up, there will always be someone who doesn’t like you or dislikes some aspect of your personality, but you shouldn’t necessarily change yourself or your branding because of that.
“People who know you have always done the right thing will believe and support you, and not what’s written on the internet or believe other negative things about you,” Folsom said, adding that you can be successful if you focus on yourself and your skills and values instead of worrying about whether people like you.