How to Build a Bland Professional Brand in 2024

(lessons I’ve learned from my phone as an executive recruiter)

I find people fascinating.

As an executive recruiter, this serves me well.

Every recruiter – not just the really good ones, but definitely them – knows that curiosity is the single most important ingredient in a conversation.

I think it applies to all conversations – first dates to teacher conferences to professional networking – curiosity makes all of us better communicating because it requires us to listen.

Which is the second thing a great recruiter does – actively listen.

But, I digress.

My career, maybe like yours, has grown over decades

My career, which may be like yours, has grown over time. And, as my salary and titles grew, so did my responsibilities.

Which was fine by me, I didn’t expect to get one without the other.

I was often asked to lead projects and initiatives that weren’t typical for my position.  Special projects and promotions led to having a bigger impact.  And, they all helped move me along the career ladder.

Sometimes, my personal life would take the hits.

In 2017, I was standing in line with my family at Disney when my phone rang.  It was the COO.  I took the call.

Why did I feel compelled to take the call?  Duty? Loyalty? Possibly boredom from the line standing.

Nonetheless, only upon reflection did I realize that I took the call because I didn’t want to be seen as someone who couldn’t handle her responsibilities.  And, yes, I had my Out-of-Office on as well as back up staff in place.

You climbed the ladder, but didn’t like the view

If you have climbed the proverbial career ladder in a suit and heels or maybe in a lab coat and latex gloves or even at your computer and a pair of blue blockers.

But you climbed it – only to realize that you were disappointed by the view. Not that you didn’t appreciate the view, you did.  But it was somehow not as fulfilling as you imagined.

It lacked, well, you.

All of you didn’t make it all the way to the top.

There were small – invisible to anyone else – pieces of you scattered on the ladder’s rungs.

Ew, who is going to clean that up?

I realized that I had given up parts of myself that I really liked for the sake of trying to fit a mold of what I was told I needed to be.

And, as an executive recruiter, I’ve spoken with hundred (thousands?) of leaders over the years who have struggled with this problem too.

Here’s few lessons I’ve learned from my phone on building a bland brand.

Leaders who don’t take credit for what they do during an interview

You may struggle with We-itis, though I don’t think it’s been officially diagnosed as a medical condition,

While I celebrate the way in which many leaders bring the “we” into every conversation. During an interview is a critical time to be clear about I vs We vs They.

What exactly did you do?  Did you originate the idea and lead the project?  Then “we” didn’t, you did.

Without intention and quite a bit of practice, you are building an oh-so-vanilla brand by trying to play nice.

I’m not suggesting that you take credit for things are not yours, but for the love of cheese and crackers, please take ALL the credit when it is.

And, celebrate equally hard when others do the same.

Leaders who scale back their authenticity

I’m not suggesting that you stroll up to your workplace without the appropriate attire. The lesson we all learned in 2020: always, always put on pants.

I’m also not suggesting that you disregard the common workplace guidelines or your specific workplace guidelines of good behavior.

In reality, those guidelines can be summed up in one word, respect.  Respect, by the way, is widely available, it never runs out and it doesn’t cost a cent.

In addition to respect, I am suggesting that you listen to the voice who quietly tells you that you are no longer in sync with who you are and aspire to be.

That discomfort or discontentment isn’t a signal that you aren’t grateful.  It’s a signal that you’ve outgrown your current self.

Make your lived experiences, your education (what was caught and what was taught), your accomplishments visible to others because these unique aspects of you bring out the color to your professional brand.

Pretending to have it all figured out

The final lesson I’ve learned from my phone is that no one has it all figured out.  In part because developing a strong professional brand is a journey rather than a destination.

Giving yourself permission to explore, experiment and get feedback is all part of building an authentic brand.

The single most important ingredient is the promise you make to yourself to show up as you (flaws and all) and then de-cide (from the Greek, to cut) on who you are becoming.

Nothing bland about that.

Now get out there.

You’ve got this.