“How can I seize new professional opportunities when others still see me the same way?”
My first two years in Mexico City, as a new foreigner in Mexico, the easiest way to get work was to teach English in companies. Bookish, sociable, and with a passion for language and communication, I became the marketable face of a corporate language-training program. This was great at first, but it soon became limiting. As I finished a master’s degree in counseling psychology and co-founded Conversari Communication, I was eager to open new doors as a consultant and workshop facilitator. My problem: to my professional contacts, I was still the English teacher. That’s when I learned…
People treat you how they see you.
It’s not their fault. We are hardwired to form impressions of others within the first 10 seconds of meeting. Once formed, these impressions are hard to change, and they determine the way people treat you, as well as the opportunities and limitations you are likely to face in your personal and professional life.
If people see you as the cool kid, or the big boss, then that’s probably good news for you. But if people see you as an analyst and you want to be director, or if they see you as an English teacher when you want to be a consultant, then you have some personal branding to do!
Personal branding is the active process of crafting and managing your professional identity.
In a nutshell, personal branding is the process of actively shaping the way people see you, so that you will be treated the way you want to be treated, and so that you can attract your preferred opportunities.
Just how did I update my personal brand to move into a different role?… Two steps.
Step One: Clarify your unique value
A successful personal brand starts on the inside. It’s hard for others to have a clear picture of who you are and what you add to an organization if you don’t have a clear idea yourself. Many careers stall and sputter precisely because someone is unsure or unclear about who they are, what they offer to an organization, and what they want.
On my own rebranding journey, I began by formulating my own vision and mission statements, and by clarifying my unique value proposition. Once I knew where I wanted to go, I started to immerse myself in the culture and language of my goal. Before I could communicate a convincing new identity to the professional world, I had to update the programming code of my mind. I read business books, watched YouTube videos, and listened to hours of business podcasts on headphones at the gym. I tried on new language like “unique value proposition,” and looked for opportunities to use these foreign words until they became as natural to me as “present-perfect tense” and “phrasal verbs.” Armed with this coding update, I was ready for Step Two…
Step Two: Manage your professional image
Once you have clarified your unique value and your preferred professional identity, it is time to take inventory of how others actually see you. This “360 image” assessment can reveal hidden strengths as well as image limitations, and let you know just how far you need to go. From there, mount a marketing campaign to introduce the new you. Like any effective marketing campaign, you must use both personal and public channels, in both written and oral forms. Trust takes time and consistency, so the key to creating a strong personal brand is sustaining a congruent message.
Identities are sticky. Our person is formed in community, where we internalize the mirror-images that others people reflect back to us. I was used to presenting myself with an academic air and selling my time for 10 cents to the dollar of a consultant’s rate. To change, I needed the support and feedback of others. To secure a clear new image as a consultant and corporate communication trainer, I had to spend time with other consultants and business professionals who saw me as one of them, and I had to leverage their feedback to make changes in my behavior. Their feedback led me to replace bookish theory in my trainings with executive summaries and a focus on immediate practical application. In my dress, I traded in scholarly sports jackets for business suits. In my body language, I adopted a straighter posture and grew accustomed to larger gestures with open palms.
I also had to make tough choices. If I was going to be a consultant, I had to turn down English teaching jobs—even if that meant economic uncertainty for a while. Transformative change always includes a leap of faith into an unknown new identity. For others to accept my new identity, I had to be clear and congruent with all my actions and communications. That started with updated content and feel to my CV and LinkedIn profiles, updated website bios and new business cards. But that was not enough. I started blogging about organizational development and business communication, I posted business-related content across social media channels, I went to business networking events, and I eventually enrolled in a top MBA program.
We need others to realize our own dreams.
If others see us in the way we want to be seen, their conscious and unconscious support propels us toward our personal vision. If our networks harbor a limiting view of our role in the world, however, we risk being held back instead.
Today, as I write this blog on the way to facilitating a client workshop and attending an entrepreneurship conference with my business partner, I pause and reflect on my continuing personal brand evolution. I still tend to get over-zealous with theory in my trainings, and I still approach my business work with a counselor’s aim to help the people. But I have to smile when I think of teaching English. I can use the simple past tense now: I used to be an English teacher.