WE SPEND PLENTY OF TIME later in this book exploring what makes other colleagues or stakeholders tick – particularly those who we need to engage with and influence so we can produce more effective outcomes.
In this early chapter the focus is on ourselves. Looking from the inside out, we form opinions about those we work with. Are they ‘good’ to work with (and we’ll explore what ‘good’ means more precisely in these pages)? Are they reliable? Do they know what they are talking about? Do they work well with others? Do they have the right connections to get things done? The combination of all of these factors makes up what we think of them – their personal brand.
We all have a personal brand (whether we like it or not). It is what people think of us, not how we think of ourselves. Our personal brand might be something we’ve intentionally cultivated and designed, but it is more likely to have grown organically from people’s experiences of us.
In Figure 4-1 we explore the information sources that our colleagues and stakeholders depend on to assess personal brand. The graphic is compiled from asking hundreds of experts this question. We ask participants to list and then categorize the information sources that their colleagues use to determine who they are and what they are like (their personal brand). We then ask participants to assess which are the most important sources of information – that is, which do they rely on most (in effect, which are the most credible).
As we can see from the graphic, experts (like everyone else) make their assessment about others based on their interpretation of many things (a scary amount, actually). Like all of us, experts have many sources to choose from – others’ behavior, interests, perceived motives, capabilities, apparent priorities, reputation, among others. We all take into account how those we are assessing speak and dress and their interpretation of others motives and interests. These impressions shape how all colleagues relate to other colleagues.
Some information sources are far more important than others. In the graphic, the larger the circle the more important that information source is. You can see that we have described the sources as either ‘first-hand’ (we directly experienced the person), ‘second-hand’ (we heard from someone who directly experienced that person) or ‘third-hand’ (we hear a report from someone we don’t know who experienced that person). By definition, when we hear experiences second and third hand, we are getting a filtered view of what happened, colored by the preconceptions and values and standards of the person or persons providing that news.
Hearsay is quite influential. Before experts have seen other colleagues in action, it’s the nearest source of information, particularly if the hearsay is coming from a colleague, we know to be reliable and to have sensible judgement. But this is still second-hand knowledge. Third-hand knowledge – typically ‘media’ – is believable only to the extent that we believe the source to be credible. People’s direct, first-hand experiences with us are always at the top of the credible and to be believed list.
The natural cynicism of experts comes to the fore when we ask them how much of what people write about themselves in LinkedIn, for example, do they take at face value (Answer: not much.) If the Wall Street Journal writes an article about us, most of our colleagues would consider this highly credible. On the other hand, if our local paper runs a puff piece about our good works cleaning up a beach nearby, our colleagues might pat us on the back but tell us that it was probably a slow news week.
But easily the most important source of information is the evidence our colleagues see with their own eyes. It might be a little scary to think about this, but when we are on show, our colleagues are making judgements about us that are lasting. Were we rude to Judy, and put her and her opinion down aggressively? That’s seen as a negative. If someone else was putting Judy down, did we step in and make sure we discussed the idea, not attack the person who suggested it? That would typically be seen as a positive. When we last promised to deliver something for Jack by Friday afternoon, did we? A positive. Or did we make a list of excuses, which let Jack down and put his project behind schedule? That is a negative, particularly so if Jack was not convinced by the excuses.
When we discuss what participants know about particular celebrities, this ‘seen it with our own eyes’ phenomenon really comes into focus. People are more inclined to judge someone by what they have seen them do, rather than what the magazines and tabloid television are telling us they did. In these days of video and YouTube, it’s pretty easy to take a long look at someone in actual action and make our own mind up about their authenticity and values.
In the workplace, we are constantly on show and our colleagues are judging us by how we treat them and others, the quality of our work, whether we do what we say we are going to do, whether we walk our talk, and how we communicate verbally and digitally with others.
In our Expertship programs, we find that email turns out to be a major factor in what we think of someone’s personal brand, because so much of our communication with colleagues these days is electronic. HP did a study several years ago that proved most people can’t interpret the tone of an email correctly - the study showed respondents were wrong as often as they were right, but most people we have worked with believe they can spot whether someone is being rude, direct or dismissive in an email accurately. Whether this is true, or not, isn’t relevant – these judgements, correct or otherwise, contribute positively or negatively to our personal brands.
A QUESTION for us to consider when we think about the personal impact we are having – and we aspire to have – is how are we currently doing? In other words, how currently self-aware are we of the impact we have on others?
In our programs we ask experts to consider the three boxes described in Figure 4-2 – a personal brand audit.
Box 1 in this graphic asks us to consider what we think our personal brand is. This judgement is made with what we currently know. We always ask participants to complete the exercise – and we invite you to do so now as well – after examining the information sources our colleagues use to determine their view of us. How have we behaved in recent meetings? Were we overly critical of a colleague in public recently? Have we visibly gone out of our way to help someone recently? Did the conflict we had with a project manager get wider airplay than we might have imagined (or wanted)?
Notes made in this box are not about what we would like our personal brand to be – we have to see ourselves through the eyes and experiences of others. It’s a look in the mirror. This exercise in self-reflection is one of the critical success factors for executives everywhere, but it is particularly important for experts to consider. Experts typically believe that their technical excellence is the main contributor to their personal brand. This is only part of the equation, however. As important is the impact we have on others. The key question to consider is: how informed am I about the impact I am having? We are constantly reviewing the impact others have on us. Are we putting ourselves under the same spotlight as often?
One way of auditing ourselves is to take a look at Figure 4-3. This data is from a range of surveys the authors have conducted over the years in gathering feedback from the wider organization about how they experience poor and good experts. The list provides a useful checklist for us to consider how we are likely to be seen by stakeholders beyond our own technical cohort.
Some of the positive aspects in this list are particularly challenging for experts.
Are we really open-minded, for example, when we are presented with something that challenges what is widely accepted in our experts’ domain? Are we open-minded when a colleague offers a ‘gut feel’ (such a notion is quickly dismissed by many experts as being not founded on data)?
Do we really operate with an organizational focus, or are we too entrenched in our technical bubble? Do we generously give up our time to gently mentor and coach more junior colleagues, or are we just too busy and senior, and provide advice in an expedient and grumpy manner (irritated by the interruption)? Given we are experts, and we know best, do we really demonstrate humility?
And succession planning is of particular importance. Many experts assume that their organization values them only for their technical capability and experience, and consequently actively hoard knowledge rather than sharing it in order to maintain their hegemony.
Being seen as a technical guru in our own technical group, but as an arrogant, unhelpful and rude colleague beyond our own department is not the personal brand we want to have. The opinions of stakeholders for whom we are supposed to be adding value are probably more important than those of our technical peers.
This runs contrary to the typical but self-serving view that the views of our technical sisters and brothers are more important than those of the wider organization because they are more informed about what we do. Our technical family are more informed about the technical capabilities we have. But typically, they are much less informed than stakeholders in the wider organization about our enterprise capabilities and the value we are actually creating for the organization.
Once we are in an objective state of mind to conduct this task, the authors find that experts are usually quite self-aware of their own existing personal brand. There are some blind spots, of course – things that others know about us that we don’t see – but in general, experts can accurately identify 80 per cent of their existing personal brand.
Box 2 in Figure 4-2 is for capturing what our personal brand actually is. It isn’t possible for us to complete this box independently – we have to depend on feedback from others to populate it. In most of our expert programs we conduct what is called a 360-degree survey. This is where we (the participants) invite a range of stakeholders and colleagues to provide feedback to us, in a structured manner, based on a series of questions, about how well we are performing in their eyes. In our particular tool – the Expertship360 – the questions are based on the Expertship Model which forms the basis of this book.
There is a myth we hear expressed more often than we would like: that experts don’t like, and respond negatively, to feedback. The authors’ experience – and indeed those of the various Expertship coaches we work with – is very much the opposite. We’ve found experts open, analytical, and keen to understand feedback from these tools. Indeed, very often they tell us that this is almost the first structured feedback they have ever had (most 360-degree surveys measure the effectiveness of people leaders, and therefore feel misaligned when used on experts).
Those positing that experts are dismissive of feedback from others are perhaps confusing their reaction to ad-hoc, uninformed commentary, which all experts are sometimes subjected to. Experts’ reactions to this type of feedback are typically negative. In the authors’ experience, however, experts’ responses to properly structured, reliable and comprehensive data are usually very open and proactive. They consider these data to be ‘news they can use’.
Feedback can be much more informal than using a structured tool, of course. Informal feedback can be gained by asking the same few questions to a range of colleagues.
Box 2, when properly populated from valid sources, will tell us the gap between what we think our personal brand is and what it actually is.
In our experience, there is no consistent theme to describe this gap. Sometimes experts are too hard on themselves, and are pleasantly surprised by positive feedback from stakeholders. Other times they discover activities at which they consider themselves very proficient being assessed quite differently by their stakeholders. Often, different groups of stakeholders have quite different opinions – the technical cohort report Jack is tremendously good at solutioning, while the removed stakeholders – those out in the business who are the eventual recipients of the value we create – report solutions that are vanilla and lack much value. These differences of opinions are always explored carefully and typically provide some very useful insights.
Box 3 in Figure 4.2 is perhaps the most interesting. It describes what we desire our brand to be. In our experience, the experts we work with almost always have something new and challenging in this box that is not contained in Box 1. (This by the way is true for all executives we work with, whether they are experts or not.) Take a few minutes to think about what you might add into this box. If you are struggling, think about what your answers to these questions might be:
What would I desire my colleagues to say about me at my leaving party? Which colleagues and stakeholders would I want to be keen to stand up and say something positive about me?
What legacy would I like to leave for my colleagues, team, and department? What would I desire people remember about me when I am no longer in the picture?
By way of an example, the authors have asked themselves the same question about readers at the conclusion of reading this book.
What would we like you to take away as a consequence of investing your valuable time in reading this text? How will you remember the experience? How long will you remember the experience? In having clarity about what the ‘end game’ for us personally is, we can check whether we are on track as we write chapter by chapter, and we can step back and look at this text holistically and ask ‘is it good enough’ to ensure we achieve our objective?
As experts going about our day-to-day work for our organization, we can ask similar questions. Did that meeting create lasting value? Did I mentor that junior associate in such a way as the lesson will stay with them for a long time and help them with their career? Did that stakeholder hugely benefit from my interaction with them, and consequently will his/her memory of me be positive and enduring?
Our questions here relate to the long game – what do I want my brand to be at some undefined stage in the future? You might wish to choose a shorter horizon. By the end of the year, what do I want people saying about me? Or even the end of the quarter? Regardless of the time horizon you choose, you can begin to work on building a positive personal brand immediately.
Remember that your ‘leaving party’ might be to move to a new role within the same organization, and that event might not be as far away as you think. This will be particularly true if you can make the transformation to Master Expert – everyone wants a Master Expert on their team or project. A large proportion of those who have attended our Expertship programs have ended up working in new areas, or on larger projects or have taken on new responsibilities. Expertship excellence gets noticed.
RICHARD FEELS READY for a promotion. He feels he is a natural choice for Technical Team Leader. He is the most experienced technician, with the most significant depth and breadth of expertise.
What he’s not aware of is that he is viewed by his manager and stakeholders as being excessively negative, and consequently is the last person they would ever think of appointing to a team leadership role. Indeed, they were also sure, given his attitude towards existing managers, that Richard wouldn’t want such a role. How did Richard end up with such a reputation?
Richard’s reputation has developed over a number of years as a direct consequence of his behavior. His nickname is ‘Mr Negative’. Richard expresses negativity on a consistent basis, constantly worrying about impossible deadlines, technical complications no one else has voiced, future issues that might be created if we take a short-term view of the solution, and so on. He is extremely bright, and so is highly skilled at destroying others’ ideas and suggestions with rapier-like clinical, rational argument.
Richard considers his own opinion so obviously correct that he – without really realizing it – tends to be extremely dismissive of others’ ideas and suggestions. This comes across to colleagues as plain arrogance. People who work with him have learned that if they don’t want to have their ideas dismissed and criticized then it is better to avoid him.
As far as project managers and Richard’s own manager are concerned, Richard has generated a lack of trust. They could not confidently entrust him with the responsibility to execute a key responsibility, because Richard was likely to focus on telling them about all the implementation challenges they are likely to encounter.
They don’t think Richard believes he can deliver, and as a consequence, worry that he won’t. On occasions when Richard hasn’t delivered, Richard tells people loudly that “the deadline was impossible, and he told them so”. This is a further concern for the team leaders he works with because he’s not taking ownership of issues, and is quick to lay blame elsewhere.
Richard is the victim of his own lack of self-awareness. He fails to appreciate the links between his behavior and his reputation – his personal brand. While he might see himself as being a respected authority in his particular technical field, the rest of the ecosystem he works within doesn’t place the same premium on his specialist knowledge. Instead, they identify him as being difficult to deal with based on their experience of Richard’s attitudes and behaviors.
Richard, devastated to hear from his manager that he wouldn’t be considered for the team leadership role, confided in a friend, Margot, who also did some part-time coaching.
Margot suggested they use a self-awareness tool called the Johari Window (created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in the early 1960s). We describe the Johari Window in Figure 4-4.
The Window contains four quadrants. Quadrant 1, the area of open activity, refers to behavior and motivations known to both self and others. It is the area which is open for all to see. In Richard’s case, both Richard and those he works with can see his technical expertise and problem-solving skills.
Quadrant 2 is the blind area, where others can see things in us of which we are unaware. In Richard’s case others can see the impact his direct and challenging behaviors have on those he works with, while he cannot (he is blind to this).
Quadrant 3, the avoided or hidden area, represents things that we know about ourselves but which we don’t reveal to others. Examples of this are hidden agendas, or perhaps matters about which we have sensitive feelings.
In Richard’s case, he is inwardly devastated to learn he is not considered for promotion, but he doesn’t show these feelings to others (other than Margot). To others he come across as not really caring one way or the other. Richard might not also share his numbing fear of failure either, which accounts for quite a lot of his negative positioning around getting things done.
Quadrant 4 is the area of unknown activity – a mystery. Neither the individual nor others are aware of certain behaviors and motives.
Richard might have, for example, a deep-seated distrust of sales people, but neither he nor others have realised this. There are often deep-seated beliefs that underpin some of our behaviors, and these are as surprising to us as they are for those who know us. One belief the authors see in many experts is a lack of realisation about their self-confidence; while wildly confident when talking about their technical domain, they lack confidence when talking about themselves. In particular, they often dread discussing subjects where they might like distinguished expertise – as if others will discover this and conclude that they are an imposter. Understanding why this is the case is often a break-through moment for experts on the journey to Master Expert.
Margot and Richard discussed how to populate quadrant 2. They agreed Richard would need to get some feedback. For quadrant 3, he would also need to explore what he knew about himself that others didn’t – and that might be useful to disclose.
Over the course of a few weeks and many informal discussions, where Richard found he had to work hard to get people to provide him with open and honest feedback, Richard learned about the way in which his colleagues typically experienced him. As he did so, quadrant 2 shrank, and quadrant 1 expanded (see bottom left graphic, Figure 4-4).
Helped by Margot, Richard began to realize that he was ambitious and wanted to progress from a career perspective, and this was something other people didn’t know about him. One reason identified was that Richard was constantly so dismissive of people in authority, everyone assumed he didn’t aspire to such a role.
Significantly more self-aware, Richard began to think about how to learn to curb his more negative behaviors. He taught himself to find something positive to say – something genuine – about a colleague’s point of view or suggested action, before being critical or countering their idea. He worked hard to action many more questions about others’ ideas before judging their idea – and found, unexpectedly, that these ideas, once explored, had much more validity than he had previously believed.
Previously unaware of how often he interrupted people in order to make his own point, he successfully stopped doing so. He asked some of his closer colleagues to point out to him when he did so, in public if necessary, and he found that he was able to change the habit more quickly than he might have imagined.
On the suggestion of his manager, Richard began mentoring and training some of the junior team members – something in the past he would never have made time for. His manager had positioned the suggestion as being an audition for whether at some stage in the future, Richard could train and inspire a team. Knowing what was at stake, Richard threw himself in to doing the best mentoring job he could.
As weeks turned into months, slowly Richard’s colleagues’ perception of him changed – little by little. They took a much more positive view of him – for two reasons. Firstly, he was much more pleasant to be around and to work with. He was also showing real interest in what colleagues were doing, and their opinions and ideas. And he was helping more junior people to develop. This was a positive change.
Secondly, his colleagues were impressed by the commitment, energy and determination that Richard was demonstrating in trying to make these changes. They saw a colleague who had asked for feedback, and was then attempting to do something about the negative feedback he had received. Richard won their respect for the vigor he was deploying to be a more positive colleague. This is a phenomenon the authors often see– it is not only the actual changes experts make to their behavior, but the effort they put in that is respected by their colleagues.
The example of Richard leads us to several significant questions. Is our personal brand, whether consciously or unconsciously produced, delivering us the results we desire? Do people react favourably to our personal brand? Does our brand give us access to key people or privileged information that we need to excel in our roles and create value? Does our personal brand bring us opportunities – or does it forever consign us to the role of technical specialist?
And furthermore, is our desired personal brand genuine? If, for example, we want to be known as a helpful colleague, are we naturally helpful?
SOME PROFESSIONS or roles come with their own brand associations. In the world of experts these are often unhelpful stereotypes, like ‘all accountants are boring bean-counters’ or ‘all IT people are propeller heads with no people skills’. Even if we are an expert in one of these stereotyped roles and we are not thought of in such ways, we still need to consciously work on fostering a more positive brand.
Many of these stereotypes are subconscious. Our colleagues won’t realise they are assuming that, for example, to quote one common myth that because we are in IT that means we are no good with people. Or because we are in IT, we can immediately fix any technical problem our colleagues may have with any other type of technology.
We can contribute to these stereotypes – reinforcing others’ confirmation bias – by using impenetrable technical jargon. Or, instead of wearing typical business attire, we wear T-shirts and jeans, clothing identifying us with our craft rather than our organization. The lack of business attire may convey a disinterest in being business-like, customer-focused. We might inadvertently convey that we are rebellious, more interested in being casual than focused, perhaps even slovenly.
Some of these clues also predispose our colleagues to determine our importance – whether indeed we are worth investing time with.
The impressions people form of us are developed unconsciously and organically, but we can help shape them by our actions and behavior. We need to determine the impression we would like to form in others’ minds, and then align our behaviors accordingly.
As an example, one of the experts we coached was a terrifically gifted coder in the IT department, who had very creative ideas about how to solve some customer problems by developing some very clever software. Tim was a typical T-shirt and jeans (and very battered sneakers) type of guy. And this was the attire he wore when he attended meetings to promote his ideas to more senior leaders in the business. He didn’t get traction.
We asked Tim what was getting in the way of him getting the resources he required (which was time away from his main responsibilities). He developed a good list of the reasons, many being highly subjective (“they are idiots” or “they don’t get it” and so on), and some more measured (“I don’t think they take me seriously” or “they don’t actually see the value in what I am proposing”).
With some re-thinking, Tim shaped his proposal to connect it to executing the new strategic drivers that had recently been introduced – the organization needed to be more customer centric. Tim was able to show that his software would achieve this objective, improving both the customer experience (speed and access) and also providing the organization with better customer data (what options interested the customers, and which didn’t). This addressed relevance and buy-in.
What wasn’t addressed was the extent to which the senior leaders took Tim seriously and trusted him to execute an important business initiative. We asked Tim if he felt that the senior leaders felt Tim was one of them. Tim quickly identified that the way he dressed to attend these meetings was completely different to everyone else in the room.
Tim strenuously pushed back at changing his dress. He felt that it demonstrated bias and immaturity for senior leaders to “judge the book by its cover” as he put it. We explored why these leaders might not have trusted Tim. He concluded that they erroneously didn’t feel safe because Tim looked like he didn’t care about how he looked, and they connected this to sloppy work (the most unlikely thing any of Tim’s technical colleagues would ever say about him – his code was meticulous).
Eventually, Tim’s commitment to want to see his project proceed overcame his irritation at having to conform from a dress perspective. He didn’t wear a suit and tie, but he procured a business shirt and smart slacks, and then proceeded to present his initiative professionally, connecting his idea to the organization’s strategy. And as a final flourish, Tim banished any technical jargon from his presentation and used the language that appeared repeatedly in the organization’s strategy documents. After several meetings, he eventually got approval to proceed.
Some changes in personal brand are relatively easy to notice and shift. For instance, if we start asking more high-level and business-oriented questions, people will form an impression that we are more commercially and strategically-oriented and not a one-dimensional tech-head. But other changes dig more deeply into our core identity and motives, and require a deeper level of analysis and possibly reframing – such as exploring what intentions or motivations are prompting us and others to behave as we do.
WE USE THE PHRASE ‘personal brand’ rather than ‘professional brand’ for a good reason. It’s easy to provide yourself with a glowing reference if you only look at your brand through a ‘professional’ lens. “I have X years’ experience, I am very competent at Y. I earn Z. I have seniority over A. I am on the Q project teams because my skills and knowledge are valuable to the business.”
But our qualifications are not our brand. They are merely a collection of information about us, usually from our perspective, that people may or may not be aware of, or regard as significant. Our brand is what people who work with us see and feel. It is how they experience us, as a colleague and as a human being.
They may or may not know we have a PhD in astrophysics, but they do know that we were considerate – or dismissive – to a colleague in a recent meeting when they disagreed with our point of view.
They may or may not know or care how many years’ experience we have, and they may or may not consider this important. But they will remember when a project team we were on was struggling, and whether we offered to help or blamed others for the problems.
They may or may not recognize us as senior to them in the organization. They may or may not think this is important. But they will remember how we responded when they asked us for our advice, and whether we adopted a superior manner or coached them as to the possible options to solve the problem.
We might assume they will suspend judgement until they experience us directly, but they often meet us having heard quite a bit about us first. ‘Your reputation precedes you’ has become a cliché.
If an expert has a major meltdown in a meeting, and leaves the meeting room yelling and screaming, how long does news of this event take to become widely known in the organization? A couple of minutes. How long does it take for people to forget the meltdown? Years, if ever.
We need to consider this when it comes to our personal brand. There is a saying that we are only as good as our last result. Four great results followed by a disaster means that the disaster is the current view, despite the fact that we’ve been successful 80 percent of the time. You might think that’s not bad, but people remember the most recent 20 percent.
Most of our personal brands are not consciously designed. They emerge over time based on others’ aggregate experiences of us. They are often powerfully shaped by certain significant events which take precedence over others. Our behaviors, the language we use, the quality of our work, our attire, etc., all combine to form a general picture in others’ minds about who we are, what we do, what value we add, what we stand for, what they can expect from us, what we care about, etc..
Personal brands can evolve positively over time as a consequence of a sustained and intentional effort (such as Richard’s). Experts, like everyone else, are responsible for the impressions that people form about them over time. Master Experts always consciously work on behaving in such a way as they achieve their targeted personal brand.
Progressing to Master Expert level typically involves giving increased attention to how you relate to others. It also relates to your attitude towards the organization’s commercial realities. It involves a shift from being reactive to being proactive. A lot of it has to do with moving up the value chain and partnering with others in the organization.
IF GROWING YOUR Personal Impact skills is something you think would benefit you, then here is a suggestion for action you might wish to take to build your Expertship skills:
As we have established in this chapter, we all have a brand whether we have consciously fashioned it or it is simply the aggregate sense people have made of us. A positive brand ensures that people will relate to us in ways in which we would welcome. A negative brand will consistently undermine our optimal involvement and contributions. Questions we might want to ask ourselves:
Have I assumed that my personal brand resolves solely around my subject matter expertise?
Am I viewed as unidimensional – only interested in certain things?
Am I known as arrogant and opinionated, or as a pleasure to work with?
Am I known as a valued and vital strategic contributor, or simply a propeller-head with deep knowledge in only a narrow and specialized topic?
How would I like my stakeholders and colleagues to think of me? What would I like them to say about me?
To what extent is there a gap between what I desire them to say, and they currently might say?
Most experts will discover a gap between desired brand and current brand. They’ll check the validity of their own assumptions by asking for feedback from colleagues. They’ll make a short list of the new behaviors, knowledge, mindsets and set up a plan to develop these new capabilities in order to enhance their personal brand.