With my personal brand at risk, I accepted and used feedback to turn things around.
I had just started my dream job as the L&D lead for my company’s sales enablement team after a 13-year run as a field salesperson. My new peers were impressive, with years of experience in various aspects of talent development. They were close with each other, moved fast, talked faster, and used terms I didn’t know.
I quickly felt out of my element. Then fear overcame me as I worried that sooner or later someone would find out I was in over my head—a poorly made new hire. Adding to those feelings was a culture that expected people to create a high degree of value for the organization. Attending a meeting? Expectations were that you contribute or answer as to why you were even there.
Not one to run from a challenge, I charged into my new role. I responded quickly to peers with emails that were brief, efficient, and to the point. And I didn’t just attend every meeting and teleconference—I participated. I tried to add value at every opportunity with suggestions or new perspectives.
I believed I was holding my own. Every day I put in a maximum of effort, gained knowledge and confidence, and increased my contributions. I was feeling really great—until I wasn’t.
Reality smacksDuring an early one-on-one with my manager, I expected her to recognize my efforts and tell me how well I had gotten up to speed. Instead, I received some unexpected feedback.
She acknowledged how hard I was working and all the great strides I had been making, but she also shared that in many ways, that didn’t matter. My actions and behaviors were creating a negative perception about me and were becoming obstacles to achieving critical objectives.
The team labeled me as arrogant. My take on assertiveness was hurting me, hindering my ability to be as effective as I wanted to be. More importantly, it didn’t reflect how I saw myself. I was unfortunately developing a negative personal brand.
My supervisor’s feedback stung. Her candidness left me shocked and defensive, not to mention discouraged.
I had worked so hard to assimilate to a new environment by applying the advice she and my new peers had given and emulating styles and behavior that I observed around me. I thought I was holding my own.
I was embarrassed, and my negative self-talk told me her criticism validated my biggest fear: I was out of my league.
After some time and a bit of perspective, I realized the feedback was the dose of reality I needed. After I processed it, I was able to internalize it and see it for the gift that it was. With a little work, I knew I could change my personal brand.
Action planThe concept of a brand extends beyond products and companies to people. A personal brand is the intersection between how I see myself and how others perceive me—and my supervisor’s feedback showed me that my work was not having an impact because I had the wrong brand.
With my new self-awareness, I charted three steps to realign perceptions of me with the reality of who I am.
Step 1: Stand and deliver. In my role, multiple stakeholders—customers, teammates, and leaders—have different needs and expectations of me. I had to determine those needs and expectations and use empathy to understand how stakeholders think, feel, and expect results.
I initially focused on the peers who were commenting to my supervisor. I thought about what behaviors they needed from me as a new teammate. I jotted some notes of what I would expect if our roles were reversed, such as “be intentional about asking questions” and “be careful about showing anything that appears to be judgmental.”
Step 2: Define myself. To re-establish my brand, I thought about a few words around which I could build my brand that also describe who I am. I focused on three adjectives that described the behavior I wanted to demonstrate: curious, collaborative, and humble.
Those became my daily goals. In every meeting, during my personal interactions, and in emails, I challenged myself to specifically demonstrate curiosity, collaboration, and humility. I made sure to balance the qualities that come naturally for me with those that are critical for my role, and I avoided traits I knew I couldn’t exhibit comfortably.
Step 3: Test for alignment. To create a tight association between what each stakeholder expected of me and what I wanted to be known for, I identified a few teammates I knew would give me candid feedback.
Before meeting with them, I created “so that” statements: “I want to be known for being [X trait], so that I can deliver [Y stakeholder expectation].” For example, one was: “I want to be known for being professionally curious, so that I will have the broadest possible understanding of any issue.” I questioned how the statements represent me and what I can do, how they create value for stakeholders, and whether they reflect my values and strengths.
Then I shared those statements with my teammates and scheduled time to hear their thoughts. That created a feedback loop where I could check in with my manager and other colleagues who regularly observed me to see how effective my efforts were, and it helped me make minor course corrections as needed.
Not only did those actions help me shift others’ perceptions of me, they also helped me make adjustments as I progressed in my career.
From action plan to habitMy plan was easy to follow and eventually became second nature to me. It has enabled me to keep my personal brand in check.
I wish I would have learned sooner in my career the lesson that perception is reality. Building my personal brand required a high degree of self-awareness, a lot of effort, and getting candid feedback (even if it stung). I learned to see that feedback as a gift—one that has enabled me to make incremental changes to ensure my personal brand is as memorable and authentic as possible.
Read more from Talent Development Leader.