You’ve worked long and hard, sacrificing to build a solid reputation. When you’re out of the room, you know what they’re saying: He’s an innovative marketer. She’s a terrific patent lawyer. He knows everything about the Latvian export market. But what if you now want to rebrand yourself?
People reinvent themselves all the time – to take on a new challenge, shift into more-meaningful work, or rebut perceptions that have hindered their career progress. Sometimes the changes are major. Sometimes the rebranding is subtle, as for an executive who wants to advance but needs to overcome the knock that he’s “not good with numbers.”
Taking control of your personal brand may mean the difference between an unfulfilling job and a rewarding career. Your path may make perfect sense to you, but how can you persuade others to embrace your new brand – and take you seriously?
I’ve learned that five steps are key to reinventing yourself for the business marketplace, whether your desired changes are large or small.
1. DEFINE YOUR DESTINATION
Rebranding isn’t easy, and if your plan is poorly thought out, you’ll end up confusing yourself and others. Start by determining where you really want to invest your energy. Check out relevant industry trade journals, do informational interviews, even try some internships. If you’re looking to advance or shift laterally within your company, see if a shadow program or a sabbatical is available – and seek out a mentor who can guide you.
Next you need to build the skills necessary for your new path. If you’ve been a game developer for the past decade, you may understand the technology better than anyone else in the company. But if you want to move into video game marketing, technical savvy isn’t enough; ask yourself what else you need to know – and how to learn it. Learning the skills you need will give you the confidence to start publicizing your new identity – and the credibility required to assume it.
2. LEVERAGE YOUR POINTS OF DIFFERENCE
What’s your unique selling proposition? That’s what people will remember, and you can use it to your advantage. After losing popularity to newer, even more right-wing talking heads, the conservative pundit Ann Coulter had to reinvent herself. She didn’t entirely abandon her old brand; she reconfigured it to compete in a new marketplace. Leveraging her unique blend of blonde vixen and conservative firebrand, Coulter is now courting gay Republicans who enjoy diva-style smack talk. As Coulter understood, previous experience can distinctively color your new brand and help you stand out.
Finally, use distinguishing characteristics to your advantage, even if they’re not strictly relevant to your work. Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor, is under five feet tall. He knew that people seeing him for the first time would be surprised – and he didn’t want his height to be a distraction. So he’d loosen up crowds with a joke or two about his stature and, in the same vein, titled his campaign book “I’ll Be Short.” Like it or not, “short” was part of his brand – and he shrewdly leveraged it.
3. DEVELOP A NARRATIVE
You used to write award-winning business columns … and now you want to review restaurants? It’s human nature to have many interests, to seek new experiences, and to want to develop new skills. Unfortunately, people often view that as the sign of a dilettante.
It’s unfair, but to protect your personal brand, you need to develop a coherent narrative that explains exactly how your past fits into your present. The key is not to explain your transition in terms of your own interests (“I was bored with my job and decided to try something else,” or “I’m on a personal journey to find the real me”) but to focus on the value your prior experience brings. This is particularly relevant for the fresh-out-of-college set, whose early career opportunities have been hobbled by the recession. A stint flipping burgers may not be the ideal resume builder, but you can get credit for learning valuable skills on the front line of a customer service organization – if you tell your story well.
One caveat is that your narrative must be consistent with your past.
4. REINTRODUCE YOURSELF
Once you’ve embraced your rebrand, making new contacts is the easy part – they’ll take the new you at face value. The harder slog is reintroducing yourself to your existing network.
The truth is the vast majority of people aren’t paying much attention to you. That means their perceptions are probably a few years out of date – and it’s not their fault. With hundreds (or thousands) of Facebook friends and vague social connections, we can’t expect everyone to remember the details of our lives. So we have to strategically reeducate our friends and acquaintances – because they’re going to be our buyers, recommenders, or leads for new jobs.
First make sure that all your contact points (Facebook, LinkedIn, personal website and so forth) are consistent and up-to-date. Don’t forget to reach out by phone or e-mail to all the people on your list – individually – to let them know about your new direction and, where appropriate, to ask for help, advice, or business.
Also, think strategically about your “unveiling.” Are there projects you can get involved with that will showcase your new interests and abilities (or help you develop them)? Volunteering on political campaigns or for charitable causes is one high-profile way to make new contacts and develop new skills. Leveraging opportunities within your company is another. If a major new initiative is launching, try to jump on board. If competition is too fierce, you can take on jobs that others don’t want but that will help you meet people and build crucial connections.
5. PROVE YOUR WORTH
Every art student has a portfolio ready to be shown at a moment’s notice. It’s no different in the business world. There’s a wide gulf between my knowing that you’ve launched a new business and trusting that you’ll do a good job for clients. I may like you a lot, but unless I see proof of your skills, I’ll hesitate to put my own reputation on the line by sending you referrals.
That’s where blogs, podcasts, videocasts and other forms of social media come in. The first step is securing your own Internet domain name and starting to produce unique intellectual property. The second, even more critical, is ensuring that your material offers real value.
After you’ve demonstrated your ability, solidify your rebrand by associating with the leading organizations in your field. Make a focused effort to publish in respected journals, speak at industry conferences, or take on a leadership role in your trade association.
Finally, you have to be consistent and committed as you move forward. Especially in the Internet era, traces of your old brand will never completely disappear – and as long as you’re thoughtful about what you’ve learned along the way, that’s OK. The challenge is to be strategic about identifying how you wish to be perceived, developing a compelling story that explains your evolution and then spreading that message. Consider it “search engine optimization” for your life: The more connections you make, and the more value and content you regularly add to the stream, the more likely it is that your new brand will be known, recognized and sought out.
Author Note: Dorie Clark is the CEO of Clark Strategic Communications, a consulting firm that helps clients build their brand reputation and increase sales.
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© 2011 Harvard Business Publishing