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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #10

The Word on the Street

What do people say about you when you aren't around?

Or more importantly, what does your boss (or other key stakeholder) say about you when you aren't around?  For example, when in a compensation review meeting?  Or  when promotions to key positions are being discussed?

The things that people say about you when you are not around is usually called your reputation.  A better way to think about it is that it's your personal "brand".  I believe that it's the biggest factor in your ultimate success on the job. And here's the good news: for the most part, YOU completely control it!

For those of you who have not been in the meetings or discussions about hiring/promotion/reward, here's how they go.  Usually, there are a few candidates to discuss, and each candidate is discussed by the key stakeholders.  They discuss the person's attributes (i.e. performance, results, strengths, development areas, weaknesses, etc.) in broad terms.  Occasionally a numerical score is used, but usually it's decision by consensus discussion.  Does the person have the skills or experiences needed?  Do they have the right attitude to be the person we need moving forward?  The decision is made based on what is "known" about the person, and what decision makers "feel" about their potential.

The object of the game is for you to control what is said about you in those meetings.

Here's an example.  A number of years ago, the group that I was in was facing a layoff.  The manager was making a decision on keeping only 1 of our group's 2 technicians.  One technician continually told everyone that he would do whatever was necessary to make the department successful, even sweeping floors if necessary.  The other technician drew very clear boundaries about his duties, and told his boss that he didn't want or need to learn new skills to be successful.  So when the manager sat down to make the decision, he looked at the following 2 brands:

  1. Skilled with lab work and computers, 20 years experience in varied roles, hard-working, and willing to learn new skills and do whatever it takes to help the department succeed.
  2. Skilled with lab work and computers, 20 years experience in varied roles, hard-working, but inflexible in learning new skills and rigid in his job duties.

Obviously, he kept #1.  I don't think person #2 ever realized that his own words and actions had created a reputation that sealed his fate before any formal process ever started.

Once you know what others think and say about you, you know whether you need to make a change.  The process of repairing a reputation is the same one that I described in past newsletters about fixing bad habits.  Obtain the feedback, and make a point to show the key stakeholders that you have improved. 

Your brand consists of three things - skills, experience, and attitude.  Let's look at each of these in more detail:

  1. Skills - What you know

    There are two sets of skills that are factors here.  First, there are the skills required to do your current job.  Typically, these would be considered technical skills.  It's important that the perception is that you have mastered all of the skills to do your current job effectively.  It's even more important that your reputation does not say that you are lacking in certain skills. 

    Second, there are the skills that you need to demonstrate to get the NEXT job, if advancement is your goal.  They are sometimes different, and many times start to involve more interpersonal skills.   This is where demonstration of things like customer skills, business acumen, decision making, networking skills, communication skills, etc. start to be factors. 

    I doubt whether many Fortune-100 CFO's do much accounting in their daily jobs.  However, I bet that at one time they were regarded as skilled accountants who had demonstrated leadership potential.

    It's important that that you know the skills required to do the current/next job, and that others perceive that you have no (or minor, fixable) skill gaps.

  2. Experience - What you've done well

    For many promotions or rewards, there are certain experiences that are good to have on your resume.  For example, becoming a senior technical contributor may be easier if the candidate has experience with certain tools or technologies, or experience being the technical lead on successful challenging projects.  Becoming a business leader s requires experiences that involve direct experience with customers, some sort of project leadership role, possibly international experience, etc.  It's important to know what those desired experiences are so that you can manage your career appropriately.  (If you don't know what's required, it's time to use your networking skills to find out.  Talk to successful people in the desired role about their background and experience.)

    What many people miss here is that one should have SUCCESS in these roles.  Many people try to check the box, by leading a project, then moving to sales, moving internationally, and then asking for their management job.  The issue is that there are no successes or results to show.  The gain in broad experiences may be offset by the perception of an attitude of not caring about results.

  3. Attitude - How you act

    Attitude is the part of this that is most overlooked.  'Attitude' is often used to describe the intangible qualities that differentiate you from others.  It can either be positive (hard working, customer savvy) or negative (arrogant, poor listener), and it often makes the difference between candidates.

    I have written a number of newsletters about changing bad habits.  The process for changing a bad habit is the same as the process for fixing perception of bad attitude.  First, you need to find out what the perception is.  Then you have to plan how to change the behavior by apologizing and building in people to support the change.

    In my example above, if the technician knew that he was thought of as inflexible, he could have perhaps apologized and stated his intention to change.  He may have saved his job.

Getting your brand known

Having the right skills, experiences, and attitudes is not enough.  It's having key stakeholders KNOW your skills, experiences, and attitudes that is important.  So how do you make your brand known?

First, who do you need to influence?  It's wise to make your brand known to everyone, but it's crucial to know who will be making the decisions you care about.  Also, it's important to know who influences the decision makers. 

Once you know them make a list.  Then determine the following:

  • Have they heard of you?
  • Do they know you?
  • Have they seen your work?
  • Have they been positively impacted by your work?
  • Do they know what you want to do?

Work through this list, thinking of how you can have an impact on the decision makers.  Find ways to work on projects that they care about, or be on teams that work on their projects.  The key thing here is that the relationship needs to be give-and-take.  Do something positive for them to establish your brand, and maybe they will respond by helping you down the road.

A lot of people will negatively call this process "playing politics." Office politics, usually means that people are perceived to move ahead based on who they know, not what they've done.  I usually find that it's a combination of both. So stop telling yourself "my good work speaks for itself" or "I am above office politics" and look at this advice as advocating for yourself, because it is a very real part of working in an organization.

It's a fact that, people who are known and have had success are usually at the top of mind for opportunity. Interestingly, even people who are known and have failed are sometimes considered for a second chance.  People who unknown are typically last to be considered.

If you have to go an interview for the job and present your case, you are probably already behind the race.  Your best bet is to have the person hiring already have heard positive things about you.  In the ultimate scenario, the person hiring should be HOPING that you interview for the job, because in their mind you are already the right candidate.

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate