My previous post must have illustrated that although a lively, outspoken person, I am someone rather concerned with the niceties, the propriety, the image I project to others. I am all the more so now that I am, unexpectedly due to a project falling through, and after a long, settled period, back in the rough-and-tumble of job search. I’ve had occasion to reflect on an article I ran into years ago in the Working Knowledge segment of the Harvard Business School website. It was back when I had just started blogging, more out of a need to speak out than anything else. The learnings I gathered could be morphed into a rather simple roadmap, so I’ve done that, put it into action and now wanted to share it.
Basically, the premise is that we all have a professional image, whether it is deliberately managed or simply came about. It can be accurate, or distorted, as image is a matter of perception. But we also have the image that we aspire to project, the one that we feel reflects our nature and competencies better. It is that image that we feel the need to work toward, tweaking or altering what people see of us until it matches what we wish them to see.
There are four steps to achieving this.
1. Define your target image
Assuming you already know yourself, you’ve reflected on your character traits and are familiar with the various personae you have for social interactions (from friends, to family, to volunteering to work), think about this:
- What do you want people to think about you? What traits should come to their mind immediately when they think about you, and what skills should they immediately think/remember you have?
- What do you want to bring forward, from your current image into your future one?
- What perceptions and behaviors that you already have outside of your workplace can be translated to your professional image (meaning, how can you take advantage of abilities and traits you already have, but you have kept separate from your professional identity)
- What are the things that should not bleed through from your private to your professional image, or the ones that need to be separated now?
2. Do a situation analysis
- Who is your audience? What traits are they biased towards?
- How does your specific environment define professionalism – meaning what is thought as professional and positive in your company, industry and society?
- What are the deal breakers, meaning those signals that immediately diminish professional associations (is it dress, accent, gestures etc.)?
- How do others perceive you? (and be honest about it)
3. Analyze the feasibility
This is about the gap between the your ideal image and the current situation.
- Is what you want to achieve in line with what society sees as desirable?
- Do you have to put in a lot of work to achieve the ideal image? How much work are you willing to put in? How much can you?
- Are the negatively perceived traits changeable, and what amount of effort does it take to eliminate negative associations?
- How much do you care about how you are seen, and how much does it affect you?
- What are the consequences of failure? Will your image stay the same or be impaired or diluted by the shift you are trying to accomplish?
4. Act, react, and reenact
- Improve: take classes, courses, attended conferences, read books, monitor your behavior and interactions and debrief yourself. This is a cardinal rule, all else pales if you do not do the work. Promotion, and I tell you from experience, can only sell a bad product for a certain time, and a mediocre one for a certain extent. So if you have flaws or lacks, work to fix them.
- Choose the self promotion tools and channels that best fit your desired traits and the social norms. (For example, if you want to show you are a good writer, you can create a blog, or have a Twitter stream but you could just as well write op-eds or have a column in a newspaper, if that is what’s appropriate in your culture or industry.)
- Build credibility consistently and strategically, without emphasizing the shift you are trying to accomplish. The process is one of highlighting traits that you have, which people don’t see, not seeming something something you fundamentally are not. In other words, don’t lie. Be authentic.
- Manage your image constantly, not by leaps, stops and bounds, and correct slips immediately.
- See if others perceive you better or closer to your ideal than before. If they don’t, change your strategy and try again.
I’ve often undervalued myself, and then wondered why others don’t see my whole level of competence. I had learning situations in which I excelled and reaped image benefits and work situations that I handled stellarly but couldn’t reap the same rewards. This was all due to not understanding what i wanted to be seen as in the particular context and which of my skills had lead to success in one environment and I wasn’t using in the other. Can’t say it’s perfect now, but I am certainly closer to the professional image that reflects me accurately and, incidentally, very positively.