When I was starting out my career in consulting, I set up a number of networking calls with executives across my company to ask their advice on how to navigate my career. In almost every conversation, I was told to think about my “brand.” To be honest, I had no idea what they meant by the term.
Years into my career, I finally understand what “brand” means and why it was mentioned in every networking conversation. “Brand” is the way we show up in appearance and demeanor, the things we are known for, and what makes us unique. It’s a way to share with others in a professional context the unique set of skills you have to offer.
Developing your brand is a key component to self-awareness and is a cornerstone to growing as a leader. It can be easy to create a façade (even unintentionally) when we talk about developing a brand, so the key to remaining grounded and authentic is making sure your choices about how you present yourself begin with self-knowledge. You don’t invent your brand out of thin air. Your brand should communicate the unique constellation of skills, history, experiences, preferences, and passions that you are.
Defining your visual brand
What does your physical appearance say about you?
Of course, there is always more to us than our appearance, but appearance does matter in a professional context. First impressions make a difference and set expectations. So why not put our best foot forward when we engage others in a work context?
One way we do this is through the physical components of our brand that show up in our video calls and in-person meetings.
As a woman in business, I feel a lot of pressure to “look the part.” We might begin to lose our own sense of fashion in an attempt to fit in with what other women are wearing. We might start to wear things that we think we should be wearing, but not because we want to wear them. (Case in point: high heels!)
It takes a strong, confident woman to know her true fashion sense and stay loyal to it without fail. When growing as a leader, I’ve thought deeply about the way I show up physically in my appearance and whether it is true to myself. For me, that means boycotting fancy heels, earrings, and designer purses because they just aren’t the real “me.” There are so many options to dress professionally while still expressing my true, confident self.
I’ve gone so far as to define the colors of my visual brand (maroon / green / blue / black clothing, black flats, minimal makeup, no jewelry, a simple professional black work backpack, a tea mug, and a notebook and pen). If that sounds like it might be too much detail to plan out at once, you can start by simply considering what your style and appearance communicate about you — and how you would like them to reflect your identity.
If you’re just getting started on your journey to discern your own visual brand, here are a few reflection questions to consider:
- What are your three favorite work outfits?
- What are your favorite colors to wear?
- What’s your favorite accessory?
- What kinds of fashion styles come from your home community?
- Are you dressing and acting true to yourself?
Beyond the visual: How you speak and what you know
The visual component of your brand is perhaps the easiest to discern and refine because we see it physically and can point to tangible things. When we think about our own growth and development as leaders, the non-visual components are even more important than the visual brand — and they take time to develop.
These non-visual areas touch on who you are on a deeper level: how you present yourself verbally and what interests / passions / specialty areas you’re known for. These are at the core of personal discernment and growth.
Here are some guiding questions to get a sense of how you currently show up verbally and in terms of competence and interests.
- How do I introduce myself in meetings and networking events?
- What’s my presentation style when leading a meeting or event? What habits and routines shape the way people receive what I am sharing (e.g., clear agendas, notes, introductions, summaries, etc.)?
- What are the conversational “fillers” that I most frequently use? (like, um, so, etc.)
- How do I speak when I’m caught off-guard?
- How do I conduct myself in difficult conversations?
- What are the phrases I use when I’m trying to market or sell something?
Capacity and interests
- What are the most common topics (work related and hobbies) I raise with others?
- What do people turn to me for when they need help?
- What do I enjoy learning about?
- What am I really knowledgeable about?
Charting your own plan for personal growth
Once you know what your brand is, how do you refine it? Take these three buckets (visuals, verbals, and capacities) and imagine the future. Pull out your journal and reflect on the following:
- Do my current answers to the above questions feel genuine? Am I proud of them?
- How can I allow this authenticity to shine in how I present myself?
- What answers are working against the person I’m created to be?
- How can I intentionally craft my appearance and habits to better reflect the person I am and what I aspire to?
Using your reflections, put together an action plan with three steps you can take today to move forward.