As women, building our personal brand is more in-depth and complicated than finding a heel you can stand in all day and swiping on a long-lasting lipstick. Don’t get me wrong, both help you look and feel your best, and feeling confident in our appearance can be a game changer in how we come across, but there are so many other elements that need our time and attention. Our outward appearance is like frosting on a cake. Everyone enjoys looking at elaborately decorated cakes, but at the end of the day, we want it to taste great more than anything else.
A personal brand is built on simple marketing principles. You can use the same strategies you would use to market and sell a product for yourself. How are you going to position yourself in an over-saturated market? What makes you different and unique? How do you solve problems better than others? How can you highlight your strengths and negate your weaknesses? It’s a lot to consider and is only complicated more by the underlying and overt bias that women face in the workplace.
I have always looked at my career as a game. Not the fun, inconsequential kind, more like a down and dirty, bottom of the ninth, with two outs kind of game. I want to win, and the only thing I’m not willing to lose is my integrity. My professional experience so far has been complex; my journey has taken me from a glorified go-for to a respected businesswoman in a relatively short amount of time. I have seen and experienced just about every stage of a woman’s professional life.
Here’s what I know for sure: when it comes to your appearance, you have to look put together, updated and modern. Looking dated, frazzled and overwhelmed is the kiss of the death for women in the workplace. You’ll be written off before you even open your mouth. Is it fair? No. But it’s a fact, so if you want to win, and gain leverage, take it seriously. It’s an easy strategy to implement.
Aside from that, we have to know the “rules” and decide when it works in our favor to follow them and when it’s time to break them. These will vary depending on the situation and what your end game is. Sometimes you have to follow along for a while until you are the one with the power, and then you can implement change. Other times, you have to take a risk and do your own thing. In every case, you need to be pragmatic about how to manage each situation.
We talked last week about some practical steps to implement to start to build your brand. Today, we’ll dive into a more nuanced conversation about how to navigate what sometimes feel like landmines in the workplace, so you can establish a reputation as a leader and get what you want. Building a strong reputation is the first step in creating the brand. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Be over prepared.
I use to have a boss who lived to tear me (and others) down in a meeting. She would challenge every single sentence I uttered, I’m pretty sure for her own amusement. She liked to embarrass her team in front of her boss, and act like, “See what I’m dealing with? They are so incompetent.” Once I caught on to what she was doing, and realized she was painfully insecure, I decided to out game her and would shut her down at every chance I got. While it is an extreme example and was undoubtedly unhealthy while it was happening, I learned a valuable lesson: know your stuff inside and out. You can’t argue facts. You set yourself up in the eyes of others as a content expert. By showing up overly prepared, no matter how poorly she behaved, I gained the respect of everyone else in the room.
Today, no matter what kind of meeting I walk into, I do a few hours of research. If it’s a new client, I find out their language pallet. What are the words they use? How do they refer to themselves, what are the titles they use, how do they view their hierarchy? Other times I look up news feeds on social media to see what they are promoting and try to find out what has been newsworthy in their world.
If you’re going into a sales meeting or pitch, have as much well-organized information as possible at your fingertips, and know how you are going to answer tough questions.
Go above and beyond in your preparation , it will always pay off.
Keep it together.
Do you look overwhelmed? Are you frequently late to meetings? You may not even realize it, but you are doing yourself and other women in your office a huge disservice. First of all, no one cares why you are late, especially if it’s happening on the regular. If you happen to be late, and it’s a fluke, just apologize for it (and please, don’t roll in with a Starbucks) but don’t go into the dirty details. Assume there is someone else in the meeting who had a similar morning and was able to make it in on time, and skip the sob story.
Optically, take a minute to assess how you are showing up. Are you carrying multiple bags? Are your arms filled with books and papers? If you are walking around fumbling and frazzled you’re just feeding a stereotype. Instead, corral your things into one streamlined bag so you have a free hand to greet others.
Take a minute to pull yourself together before you walk into a room to appear composed. It makes a significant difference in how you will be perceived.
Manage your emotions.
We are emotional creatures, and I believe our innate ability to practice empathy and compassion is truly going to change the world for the better. Feeling things is a good thing, and has its place in the professional world. But watch how your emotions come out. I speak from personal experience, I have for sure become too emotional in the past, and I let it get the best of me. If I were a man, I would be considered passionate. I would have a “don’t mess with him” reputation. But because I’m a young(ish) woman, it’s assumed I have PMS and am unstable. Do I like this? No. Do I want to change it? Sure. But I also want to get things done and get what I want, so I have learned to manage my emotions and operate in a much more composed and controlled way.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of knee-jerk emails, emotionally driven decisions, and unnecessary office drama all coming from a woman leader. It’s toxic. Instead, become the kind of player that brings peace and calm to a situation. There are ways to stand up for yourself that allow you to stand your ground without compromising your reputation.
Finding the balance between using your ability to build connection through emotion while maintaining your composure is the key to success.
Take the lead and speak up.
I have never had an issue with speaking my mind. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but it’s always worth it. A lot of it is just who I am. I also have a dad who never spoke a limiting word to me, grew up with brothers and a house full of their friends, so I learned early on not to be intimidated by men, and went to an all-girls high school that encouraged us to have a point of view, no matter what it was. In college, I lived in my sorority house with some of the most strong-willed and opinionated women I’ve ever met in my life, so it never occurred to me that a woman wouldn’t speak her mind, offer an idea or ask a question.
It’s important to position yourself as a leader by being thoughtful in your speech when you do speak up.
- Avoid limited language. Don’t start your sentence, with “I might be wrong but” or “You may have already covered this but.”
- Stop saying you’re sorry for nothing.Swap out, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” with, “Please clarify what you mean by.“
- Receive compliments with confidence. Instead of, “Oh, I can’t take the credit, it was such a team effort!” say something like, “Thank you, I’ll share that with the team.“
It’s a simple but powerful change.
Don’t wait for permission to do something. Start a business of your own or create an initiative in your office. Speak up without limits, and hold your ground.
Don’t ask just do. No one is going to offer it to you; you have to take the lead.
Support other women.
Too many women are worried about there not being enough space for everyone, especially in the corporate world, but this attitude does nothing for making the workforce a friendlier place for all generations of women. Being firm and strong, and kind and generous is possible. You can practice empathy and compassion, and still be highly respected and effective.
The more successful women there are in the world, the better off we all will be. Become a champion of other women – be known for it. If you are a senior leader in your office, mentor a group of young woman. Create your own version of a “boys club.” Set up a monthly coffee with a small group, or organize a dinner so you can talk frankly about your challenges and how you manage them, answer their questions and guide them. If you work for yourself, be generous with your knowledge and connections.
When you support other women, you not only build up the next generation, but you are enforcing your brand as a champion for change.