Let’s assume for a moment you hadn’t seen my picture before reading this.
What perception of the writer comes to mind? Intelligent? Approachable? Kind? How about overweight, lazy or opinionated?
Not easy is it?
The Collins dictionary defines stereotype as a ‘preconceived notion, especially about a group of people’. In the workplace this can also be described as an ‘unconscious bias’ – making immediate assessments of people, normally based on our own experiences, cultural environment or background.
So how does stereotyping affect your personal brand and what can you do to ensure you remain ahead of the unconscious bias?
Your face doesn’t fit
This was the moment stereotyping and my personal brand collided. I applied several times for an internal management role at a music licensing society that would’ve taken me to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Despite reaching the final stage of interviews on each occasion I was not selected for the role. I would ask for feedback and the response was often “the other person had more experience”, which never made sense to me because our CV would’ve told them this before the interview.
It was only until I cornered the Director of that department to give me an honest response it was revealed that I (or my personal brand) was not seen to fit the character they had in mind to represent the company brand. They feared that despite my expertise, because of the UAE culture I would be viewed with little respect because of the colour of my skin and as a result, I would struggle to close deals.
What I learned is that even when you’re not consciously projecting your brand, others are experiencing you as a package of traits and capabilities. That’s called your impression — how others see you. And they’re forming those impressions even if they aren’t regularly articulating it and often are unconscious of it themselves. It’s simply normal human behaviour to size people up.
Therefore, it’s important to be conscious of whether there’s a gap between your brand (the accurate picture you want to project) versus your impression (how others perceive you), and this is where it gets really interesting.
In a workplace, you've got two branding elements: company and personal. On one hand you have what the company wants you to portray and what you want to portray of yourself. It’s hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.
Here are five tips to help you build and invest in your own personal brand as you develop and advance your career – regardless of the circumstances.
1. Stereotypes can be your ally
When striving to give an accurate impression to people who don’t yet know you, it’s helpful to identify what they’re likely to be assuming or thinking about you already.
Start by identifying the stereotypes that commonly spring to mind when people look at you. I often fall into the category of the “accommodating black guy”.
Next, identify the accurate assumptions that go hand-in-hand with those stereotypes that work for you rather than against you. Lean into these — in my case, it was articulate, creative and hardworking.
Equally important, identify the assumptions that work against you. If they hold true, then work on changing them — so for me, this meant working hard to stop being seen as the office help (“Richard can do that for you; he won’t object”) or unassertive in management. If those negative assumptions are not true, then find a way to dispel them quickly. For example, showing confidence by being straight talking and contributing with authority during meetings.
2. Pop those tags
Along with stereotypes and assumptions, comes the labelling of others, whether they fit or not. Those labels can devalue your brand. Instead of allowing labels to get the better of you, strive to be seen as just you and not some pre-fabricated societal footnote in someone else’s head.
For example, I focus on being seen as a “creative leader” rather than a man, or a person of colour, or a tall person. While it’s true that I’m all of those things, I work hard to not let any of them define me.
The best way to do this is by consistently and confidently speaking with value, staking out your own stance on issues, and saying things that portray your unique take on things. Above all else, avoid simply repeating what others are saying or echoing the trend of groups tied to those labels.
3. Turn up
Woody Allen once said ‘80% of success is showing up’. This means putting your best foot forward and accepting projects that open you up to diverse opportunities, providing an opportunity to deliver beyond your own expectations.
Learn to be a little bold — the world needs you to strut your stuff and help out.
4. Mind the gap
Here’s one way to find out where to invest, change or improve. Ask a few people you trust to tell you the three words or phrases that come to mind when they think of you. Ask them to use positive words only.
Then, compare this with your own set of three words or phrases. Is there a gap?
5. Say it till it’s true
A great way to change people’s perceptions about your personal brand is to start using the new words that you want people to associate with you, whether it’s strategic, or assertive, or authentic.
A great example of this is in the book “Expect to Win” by Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley. She talks about needing to be seen as “tough” early in her career, and succeeds by using the word “tough” as often as she can with statements like: “I may be being too tough here, but we should do …” and “Let’s be tough on this one…” and so forth.
Start investing in a strong personal brand
So now you know you are constantly projecting your brand, conscious or not, and others will respond based on how you come across. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that people’s impression of you accurately reflects your desired brand so that you can maximise the possibilities that are in reach.
If you want to succeed beyond the mid-management level of an organisation or begin to attract the clientele you desire for your business, having a strong personal brand is essential.
The message is clear: brand or be branded.