We all know developing a personal brand is valuable, since a strong reputation can put you on the radar for exciting career opportunities. When your true talents are understood, it’s far more likely you’ll be tapped for relevant and interesting assignments — and it helps you stand out in a field of competitors. Research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett at the Center for Talent Innovation shows that cultivating your personal brand is one of the best ways to attract a sponsor — and professionals with sponsors are 23% more likely than their peers to be promoted. Your brand is also a powerful hedge against professional misfortune. If there are layoffs or cutbacks at your company, being recognized in your field makes it far more likely that you’ll be snapped up quickly by another firm.
But personal branding has some unique challenges for female professionals. Research has repeatedly shown that women are subject to a phenomenon known as the “likability conundrum.” Gender norms presume that women should be agreeable, warm, and nurturing, and when they violate these norms — such as when they step up to make a tough decision, share a strong opinion, or promote themselves — they’re often penalized for that behavior in a way that men wouldn’t be. We can all think of examples of women who have been publicly criticized for being “too aggressive” or labeled an “ice queen” or the “b-word.”
So how can you, as a woman, navigate this conundrum and develop a robust personal brand? Here are three strategies that can help ensure your talents are recognized.
Network both inside and outside your organization. Too many professionals over-index on “bonding capital,” to use a term popularized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, and underinvest in “bridging capital.” In other words, they have too many connections who are like them (working in the same company or the same industry) and not nearly enough who are dissimilar.
When only a select group knows about your talents and abilities, you put yourself in jeopardy. You have fewer people who can speak to your contributions or provide support, whether that’s help in securing additional resources for an important project or moving up to a new role. And if your department is reorganized or your company has layoffs, the people who understand your talents won’t be in a position to help.
Instead, consciously cultivate a broad network, so if your situation changes or you need backup, you have options. For instance, you could make a point of building professional connections with people you meet through hobbies, relationships of proximity (for instance, neighbors or parents at your kids’ school), or friends of friends.
Control your narrative. We often assume that if we work hard, people will notice it over time, or that if we’ve made a transition, it will make intuitive sense to others. Because people are so overstretched these days, that’s unfortunately almost never true. They’re simply not paying close enough attention to us or our professional trajectory to formulate a coherent narrative of us. Worse, they may make inaccurate assumptions — say, that your skills must be wildly out of date since you took time off after having a child, or that you shifted to functional roles because you were bored or “couldn’t hack it” — which could cause you to miss out on growth opportunities.
Help others understand the truth about your journey by developing a clear and concise elevator pitch that explains how your previous skills connect with, and add value to, what you’re doing now. Make that connection explicit, rather than hoping others will figure it out on their own.
To start, chart it out on paper. On one side, write down your past position or experience. On the other side, write down the job you currently hold. Then find the connective tissue that links them.
For instance, your past might be “HR director” and your present might be “regional sales leader.” An outsider may have no idea what connects these two positions and assume your career path is somewhat random. But you know that your experience in HR taught you about how to listen empathetically, understand what motivates people, and develop win-win solutions — all of which are perfect ingredients for sales success. When you’re able to share this with others, they’ll almost always get it and recognize the unique skills you bring to your position and the organization.
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A crisp elevator pitch isn’t useful just for times when you’re job hunting. There are often opportunities to shape the way you’re perceived by others, but most people miss them. For instance, new acquaintances will often ask how long you’ve been at your job or how you came to your current field. Having a pithy answer ready means you can turn their question into an opportunity to subtly highlight your skills: “I started out in HR and worked my way up to director. But I became fascinated by the sales process, and realized the listening skills and ability to connect with people that I’d developed in HR would enable me to add real value to the company, so I transitioned last year and am now the head of northeast sales.” You haven’t just laid out your job titles; you’ve provided context that conveys a strong personal brand.
Similarly, during performance reviews, you can make a point of reminding your boss about how you’re leveraging key strengths you’ve developed over time. For instance, you could connect this year’s increase in client upsells to your work developing your team’s listening skills so that they’re more attuned to client needs.
Share your ideas publicly. If you keep a low profile and let your work speak for itself, you may indeed develop a good reputation among the people you work closely with. But that’s a relatively limited number of people. Individuals in other departments or leaders many levels above you may not be aware of your contributions. And any staffing changes might disrupt the hard-fought reputational capital you’ve built. Your new boss or colleagues, lacking personal experience with you, may have no idea whether you’re any good.
Many women may feel uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments and promoting themselves directly. But there are other ways to show your areas of expertise when building a brand. Content creation is a good way to share your ideas and build a positive reputation at scale. The precise mechanics will differ based on company policies (your ability to use social media may be limited in certain regulated industries, for instance), but in almost any organization, there are ways that you can you demonstrate your knowledge and help others.
For instance, you could volunteer to host a lunch-and-learn about a topic you’ve been researching, start writing for the company newsletter, or offer advice or respond to queries on the corporate intranet. Many professionals ignore these opportunities, assuming they’re distractions that take them away from their “real work” or scoffing that no one really pays attention to them. Even if these opportunities are not popular among your colleagues, higher-ups are almost always paying attention, since they view these channels as important vehicles for transferring knowledge and sharing best practices. One college friend of mine, for example, while working as a sales clerk at a large retailer, got into a private message exchange with the company CEO — eventually winning a trip to headquarters — as the result of one of her posts on the corporate intranet.
Content creation may also open up completely unexpected opportunities, including new jobs. Miranda Aisling Hynes, whom I profile in my book Stand Out, self-published a book about creativity that she gave to a friend who worked at an arts organization. He liked it and passed it along to his supervisor; when Hynes later applied for a job at the organization, she was a shoo-in because the book had already established her credibility in the field.
Personal branding is fraught for many professionals — no one wants to look like a craven self-promoter. And with the likability conundrum, building meaningful connections and a strong reputation at work is even more complicated for women.
But if we don’t control our own narrative and show the world what we can contribute, odds are very few people will actually notice. By following these strategies, you dramatically increase the odds that your true talents will get known, recognized, and appreciated.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Recognized Expert self-assessment.