My Fragile Professional Brand (and how you can avoid making the same mistake)

I was part of a large layoff in December 2019.

It stung, but I wasn’t mad.

The writing was on the wall, as they say, and my employer provided a generous package.

The problem, that I didn’t know at the time, was that my professional identifiers were aligned to my title and company and I was completely blindsided by how hard it was to make the switch from a company’s brand and title to my own professional brand.

My fragile professional brand

At that time, I had been leading large recruiting teams for eleven years and we hired thousands of people annually.

I saw numbers of well-qualified executives come through our virtual and physical doors.

Many of them had the same problem I did, maybe that’s why I didn’t see it.

If I’m being honest, I was just busy and figured it would take care of itself.

Chances are those executives thought the same thing…

that their work would speak for itself.

The problem is that relying on your work to speak for itself is like a whisper in the wind, no one hears it.

I should have seen it coming.

Long before we started talking about our professional brands, we talked about our professional image.  A person wasn’t a brand, that term was reserved for big companies or for internationally recognized celebrities.

Back then, leaders who talked about their image were public facing leaders whose positions required them to be worried about such things.

Those of us behind the scenes spent our time on much more cerebral tasks.

All of that has changed…

All of that has changed with the rise of social media and influencers and online everything.

Almost overnight, every employee, regardless of title or influence, was a “face” of the organization.  Their online presence – or lack thereof – created a surge of marketers and creators who could help an otherwise successful leader create a recognizable brand.

From my seat as an executive recruiter, it’s clear that there are some leaders who’ve embraced this model, strategizing how to position themselves as a thought leader, even paying for the nomination into certain circles.

And, then there is the majority of the executives I talk to.

They spend their time and effort on doing the work, rather than worrying too much about their public image.

While they realize that there is some value in their professional positioning and a little work is required periodically, they would rather be judged by their results.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world is already evaluating you.

Not overtly, that would be rude and your circle of colleagues wouldn’t say it out loud.

No, it’s much more subtle.

And, that’s what I should have seen coming.

The convergence of our instant world and our professional brands.

The convergence & recruitment (What recruitment taught me about brand fragility)

A lot my work as a career strategist is from my phone and Zoom.  I prefer phone calls when I talk to someone for the first time because focusing on what someone is really saying is paramount to me, but I digress.

Speaking from my 28 years in corporate talent acquisition, there’s something you should know:

Your professional brand is especially fragile during an interview process.

The convergence means that we are making snap judgements about executives much more quickly than we should and definitely more quickly than we used to.

All because we feel like we can.

We can look them up on multiple platforms and if we don’t like what we see or don’t see much, we are already forming an opinion.

Today’s executive job market

Today’s executive job market is a world where we have simultaneously created longer and shorter interviews.

There are more people involved in the decision-making process making it longer to complete a process and yet less time with each interviewer thus giving candidates fewer opportunities to convey their value with credibility and confidence.

Executives are judged as much by their interview readiness (articulate, thoughtful, concise answers) vs. a professorial or rambling explanation as they are by their work outcomes.

And, it is hurting them.

Careers are being stalled because they haven’t kept up with this shift in expectations.

The antidote

Through those thousands of conversations I’ve had, I have seen three common themes emerge.  And, for those executives who get these right, their professional brand is sturdy enough to endure the winds of a volatile job market.

1.     Be memorable

Even if you are just kicking the proverbial tires about making a career move, you will dramatically increase your chances of being found by executive recruiters if you spend time figuring out your unique positioning – your brand – on LinkedIn.

You probably already know that recruiters are on LinkedIn a lot.  No, not posting, but sourcing for highly-qualified individuals.

I call it power positioning. This is a combination of your experiences, education (formal and informal), environment and even your career expectations. The more you can effectively convey these elements of you, the more credible you will be in a casual meeting, networking event or interview.

2.     Be prepared

When you do find yourself in an interview, you should know the details of your resume cold.

I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been speaking with a qualified-on-paper candidate who can not accurately and clearly share with me details of the outcomes listed on their resume.

Because I know that this person will be required to share their 20+ year career in about 30 -40 minutes, if I can’t be convinced, there is little chance that a hurried decision maker will be.

In order to be prepared, you will need to practice, practice, practice.  Ideally with someone you trust so they can let you know when you are unclear, going off-topic or using lingo that the listener may not know.

3.     Be specific

You probably already know that including your team’s participation/work in your explanation is important.  It’s equally important to be specific about your role.  This is the time to showcase your hard-won wins.

There’s a problem I’ve dubbed “we-itis”.

When good intentioned leaders forget that during a networking call, interview or even when they are catching up with a former colleague who you may or may not want to impress, it’s a mistake to couch every single win/initiative/goal as what “we” did.

And, we’ve all been burned by the good interviewer who turns out to be a poor performer.  One of the reasons they weren’t sussed out during the interview process, is that they were able to convey wins as “ours”.

The antidote is sharing what you did very specifically, you are helping listeners decide if you are the answer to their problems.  Otherwise, they are left wondering.  And, if decision makers are wondering, in my experience, the answer is “not interested”.

In order to combat brand fragility and not be left waving in the winds of change, executives can select any one of these themes and tackle it the same way they tackle strategic problems, lay out the plan and work it step by step.