How to Build a Personal Brand at Work

There’s a tricky line between promoting yourself when you're tied to your employer’s brand.

Published: Dec 10, 2019

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To many people, the idea of building a personal brand feels a bit icky. Some struggle because they see it as a self-obsessed and disingenuous pursuit. Others struggle because of imposter syndrome, and the sense that their thoughts aren’t worth sharing outside of their immediate circles. Still others simply see the whole process—whether it involves getting more active on Twitter or vying for a spot on a high-profile industry panel—as a needless hassle.

But experts say personal branding, or the act of creating a distinct professional reputation for yourself, can be a powerful tool in advancing your career, particularly at a time when employers are looking to raise their own profiles in an increasingly competitive business environment. After all, when an employee builds a successful personal brand, employers often reap the rewards: one study has found that a brand message posted to social media by an employee is 24 times more likely to be reshared than when posted to the employer’s social media account.

With marketing, it’s said that people have to hear a message three times before it truly sinks in; the same can be said for personal brand positioning.

Indeed, the relationship between individuals and their employers is critically important in the context of personal branding. According to new research by workplace agility expert Marti Konstant, employees’ personal brands are actually most valuable when the employer is a direct supporter. “Individuals should be able to stand on the brand ‘shoulders’ of their employers,” she says. “Just as collaborative teams yield a more noticeable and timely result than one person working solo, a personal brand increases in value when combined with employer or corporate brands.” But developing a personal brand that accurately reflects your thinking and skills while balancing the needs of your employer is an art. Here’s how to build your personal brand the right way.

Be smart about the what media you use when building a personal brand.

“Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with self-promotion. The key is honesty when you’re doing it,” says Gabrielle Lennox, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. There are several ways you can share thought leadership:

  • Write articles and post them on LinkedIn, Medium, or a personal website.
  • Create a personal website to showcase your portfolio.
  • Print business cards with a tagline that highlights the thing you’re known for.
  • Incorporate your tagline into your elevator pitch.
  • Seek out small speaking engagements.

Choose methods of building a personal brand that are appropriate for your role and industry. In your field, is it expected for you to have a personal website, or does it come across as overkill?

With marketing, it’s said that people have to hear a message three times before it truly sinks in; the same can be said for personal brand positioning. “Incorporate your area of expertise consistently throughout your online and offline presence so people begin to associate you with that passion,” Lennox advises.

Build a personal brand around giving, not taking.

Do some positioning work to find your niche audience. Ask yourself whom your skill or passion serves, and target them specifically when building your personal brand.

This strategy is as much about saying yes as it is about saying no. “You cannot be an expert banjo player and an Olympic athlete and an award-winning opera singer and the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” says Lennox. Sometimes you’ll position yourself as a generalist who knows a little bit about a lot. Sometimes you’ll choose to specialize. Neither means you aren’t a multidimensional person.

If you’re going the specialist route, don’t worry about becoming too niche when building a personal brand. You’ll be more appealing to your target audience because you’re focused on an area that clearly meets their needs. “It’s the difference between being a general practitioner and an orthopedic surgeon. Both have value to different people at different times in their life,” says Lennox.

When talking to your audience, in person or online, your intentions matter. Think of your platform as a leadership opportunity and seek to promote your employer, lift up the team, and add value to the audience—not draw attention to your own accomplishments.

Understand the types of personal branding your company likes.

Many companies, especially publicly traded ones, want to control messaging. Your employer may only let designated people at a certain level of their career build a personal brand in conjunction with the company.

If you have a new idea, approach it in a way that gets your employer on board with you. The key is to always make your employer look good, and to demonstrate what your personal brand can do for them. “When amplifying the corporate brand at an industry conference, the employee can stimulate innovation thinking when sharing what she learned with fellow employees,” Konstant says.

Most importantly, don’t try to overpromote yourself as something you’re not, or take advantage of public platforms that don’t make sense. For example, companies frown upon their employees building Facebook fan pages or Wikipedia entries for themselves. In many cases, experts say this variety of building a personal brand is probably not appropriate and may actually cause you to lose cred.

Don’t think of building a personal brand as a job-change strategy.

Your personal brand should help you communicate your value in your resume, cover letter, and interview. But it’s not something you can instantly manufacture when you’re on the lookout for new opportunities.

It’s completely transparent if all of a sudden you start booking minor speaking engagements and asking everyone to follow you on social media—people can tell you’re ready to jump ship.

Instead, create a longer-term career strategy based on the identity you’re honing. Building a personal brand isn’t a one-and-done activity. You’ll shape and change it as you change throughout your career.    

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