Its not what you do but how people perceive what you do

I came across the concept of Personal Branding via the blog of Dan Schwabel about 6 months ago and have been a regular reader of his blog.  Some ideas have been percolating up through my unconsciousness and drifted into consciousness during a day skiing with my friend Javi. (Thanks to Ana, Piero and friends for inspiring the early morning start and a fine dinner in Andorra).

The concept we discussed is that it does not matter how hard you work or how brilliant you are, but how others perceive your work or your brilliance.

There are two types of people in the world:

  • Category One: this person works really hard and achieves a lot – but bosses and peers say, “yeah, but that was an easy client” “yeah, but he had an easy project”.  Category one people never really get the credit for the work that they are doing.
  • Category Two: this person works just as hard and achieves a lot – and bosses and peers say, “he always turns things around” “We knew that he would make the difference”. Category two tends to get more credit than is really due from those around them.

I was lucky back in 1995 to begin my career with Accenture working on a project at Nationwide Buiding Society with the best manager that I have had.  Michael was a humble, smart and innovative consultant and I spent the first two years of my career working directly for him on a range of exciting, leading-edge projects at Shell, Nat West and the Labour party (pre-power).  He knew how to get the best out of me and keep me engaged and running at 95% (he was great at recognising somebody who was “coasting along” at 60-70% of their potential and saying “you are capable of better than this”; see David Maister on professionalism in Professional Services Firms).

Due to his coaching and unwillingness to take anything but my best, I was rated the highest possible rating upon my promotion to consultant. The next 7 years at Accenture, I had it easy because when I showed up on a project, the senior Accenture people would say “you guys are lucky to get this guy, he is a ‘band one’”.  If the team that I was on did well, the senior people would say “great that we put Conor in there”. If the team I was on did poorly, the senior people would say “the objectives were unclear” “the project was over ambitious”.  It was like my own guardian angel.  I was incredibly lucky. I had done nothing to seek out a guardian angel, but found that I did have one. (It was also unfair many times when I was not at my best and was receiving credit for some Category One’s hard work).

My reflections and discussions on the ski slope with Javi (who has great experience in Bain and Banco Santander) were that:

  • The first few months in a new company matter more than any other time in your career
  • The first boss really matter (each time you change company)
  • You can only switch from Category One to Category Two by changing company. It is almost imposible to re-position yourself once you have been “branded”.
  • The more senior we get, the less we can leave this personal branding process to chance

Do you have a strategy to manage your personal brand? What can you do in the first 90 days? What type of boss would be your best first boss in each new company?  Are you currently in Category One or Category Two?  If you are in Category One when will you change job?

3 responses to “Its not what you do but how people perceive what you do”

  1. Reading this I am starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, because I struggle with this, I am the opposite of the Ideal Corporate Animal Personality type, I am a bit absent minded, I am too polite, I do a lot of things wrong. I am much too easy going, and I talk to everybody as if they are good friends. I am careless with what is socially acceptable, let alone what is good corporate decorum.
    My saving grace is that I co-own the place and the business.
    Ok, I have been working on this for a long time and a recent conversation in a highly respected academic environment where we mirrored each other and gave feedback on our demeanor, I came out pretty good. So I am highly critical of myself, while I have become very successful at moderating how people perceive me, I still step right into some blunders sometimes.
    I don’t like the assumption that you have to change jobs to re-brand yourself, that you can’t reinvent and sell the new you in your company. I think it is possible.

    People’s perception of me changed radically since I started doing my small Motivational Speaking “Huddle’s” on Thursday mornings. They have a new frame of reference for who I am and what I am about. They have a new found respect for me. Also I have found a new voice through that.

    So now they understand my passive role I play in the business better, they ignore me when I want to be ignored, and I they respect me when I demand attention.

    A weird dynamic, but a good one I would say.

    But a lot of this hinges on how you write your own story, how you give birth to the way you perceive yourself.

    You write the story of who you are. And that is going to have a big influence on how the movie is going to take shape, and what role your character is going to play.

    1. Dirk – I am happy that you raise the fact that this post makes you feel “uncomfortable”.

      There is a very important distinction between “pretending to care” and “caring”. At a deep level, I really do believe that “caring” for other people is fundamental in leading a good life. If you start from a position of caring about others, a lot of this stuff will come naturally.

      The problem is that my intention is not visible to others. My actions are. And others can only judge me on my actions, and the way in which they decide to judge my actions.

      There are people in the world who care, but their actions are not perceived as caring. This is sad.

      There are people in the world who don’t care, but their actions are judged as caring. This is bad.

      Perception matters, but I believe that in the long run, we are poor actors and we will be found out if the underlying intent is not good.

  2. […] and if you are not gaining good exposure to senior influencers – fix that first (check out The PIE Model).  These tactics only work if you are perceived as an “A” […]

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