While in management consulting, I learned a valuable lesson. It’s a lesson I have since applied to all my future work. That lesson? Being strategic in building your personal brand.
I had worked before management consulting, and none of the companies I worked at before talked about the concept of a personal brand. In management consulting though, your career in consulting lives and dies on your personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
A personal brand is similar to a product or service brand. When you think of ‘Lululemon’, you think of ‘athleisure’. When you think of ‘West Jet’ or ‘Southwest Airlines’, you might think ‘budget airline’. A brand is a powerful image that people associate with a product or service or company, and evokes a certain feeling.
A personal brand is similar: when people hear about you or your work, they get a certain feeling. And they likely know what kind of work you do, and what kind of worker you are.
Why personal brand is important in consulting
In management consulting, you build a brand through the work you do. And when you develop a brand through the work you do, others hear about you and your work, and then any time they hear your name or propose you for a project, they know it is associated with something: whether it is excellent work, an area of expertise, or a certain way of working.
In consulting, consultants live and die on projects. If they are on the bench (i.e., not on a project), and speaking from experience, it is awful. You work on proposals which are often more challenging than actual project work. Or you may be doing online courses or certificates (valuable, but typically boring). You feel you are on the chopping board because when you’re not on a project, you can be let go. That’s not to say that when you’re on a project, you are safe from getting fired. It’s just that it takes a lot more work to do so.
Your personal brand helps you get onto projects. You want your brand to be so strong in the company and management that when someone says “X project”, your name is immediately thought of. Just like if I said “soft drink” you might think Coke or Pepsi. Or “luxury vehicle”, you might think Mercedes-Benz or Bentley. When you do amazing work, and have a specific focus (technology, innovation, ERP, etc.), you know that when a project in that focus comes up, your name will get floated for the work.
And if you didn’t spend the time building your personal brand, work comes up, but your name isn’t brought up. People don’t know what you do, or what you specialize in. That means you have to fight for projects.
Does your personal brand matter outside of consulting?
My argument is that it does. For example, say you are working in a company that does projects. Do you want your name to be brought up with certain projects? If you do, that’s your personal brand working for you. But let’s also imagine you work for a company that doesn’t do projects. Or you’re in a role that normally doesn’t work on projects. What, if anything, would you like your coworkers, management and executives to feel or imagine when they mention your name? What if your name is brought up for special initiatives, a re-organization, or promotion?
Another lesson I learned at work: the working world is smaller than you think. When you do good work, and build a personal brand at a company, your coworkers and bosses may move on to other companies, but keep the idea of your personal brand in mind. So imagine you built a personal brand of being a phenomenal IT director. Your boss or co-worker goes on to another company, and coincidentally, they need an IT director. Who do you think they will think of? Who will get that opportunity?
Five ways to build your personal brand, at work and outside of work
When I joined management consulting, I was told about the importance of building a personal brand. And if I didn’t strategically build or think about my personal brand, someone would do it for me. Sometimes this can be good, especially if you have no idea what you want your brand to be in. But in many cases, they may brand you in something you dislike. Often, it takes one good project to change or shift your brand. In management consulting, we had an inside joke that if you did one project well, you were now an expert in it. Rather than let others define your brand for you, here are five things I did to build my personal brand:
- When you don’t have a brand, or you are just starting out, do excellent work. Sometimes, you start in a company or switch to a different role and you don’t have much brand to speak of (or you don’t want to carry your personal brand with you because you want to do something different). In those cases, while you are looking for your ‘brand’, focus on doing incredible work. That means spending extra time on presentations to make it visually appealing. Or doing an enormous amount of research for a small report. It could also mean working a ridiculous number of hours to get ahead of your peers.
- Tell anyone you can what you are interested in and what you can help with. In consulting, I developed a special interest and skill in developing great presentations and infographics. Although all consultants were good at developing slides, I was particularly good at boiling down long messages into simple visuals. And so any time any of the partners needed interesting slides to be developed, I volunteered my time and brainpower to creating those slides. In a way, you have to be a squeaky wheel and stay top of mind to your coworkers and bosses. That way, when they think “presentation”, they will think of my (your) name.
- Show, not in a boastful way, the good work you’ve done. On a recent call with a sales person for new work we were considering, my coworker mentioned we were looking at re-designing our email templates. The sales person, working for a big company, knew about a similar piece of work that they had done for another client, and while it was somewhat salesy, he told us to let us know that 1) they could do that work if they ever considered working with a vendor and 2) they did the work before, successfully, and the client was happy with the work they did. I’d suggest a similar approach with the work you do. Let’s say you finished a project leading executives through the development of a new Business Strategy. Your coworker, in another department, mentions during a coffee that they are thinking about their strategy. Casually in the conversation, mention that you did a similar piece of work with your department and that you would be happy to help if they needed a strategy in their department. Of course, you will want to choose what you want to help out with, and whether you like doing the work.
- Share what you’ve learned on LinkedIn. I am careful what I share on LinkedIn, so I don’t share any specifics about project work or what the company or client I am working for is thinking about. Rather, I share the lessons I learned whether it’s about career advice, branding, problem solving or another work topic. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the funny thing is when you write dozens of articles about a particular subject, people start to associate your name with that subject, and then they see you as an expert. The important thing is to provide value and I like to think I do that through the articles I write sharing what I’ve learned in my career.
- Create assets. I’m a writer, so my ‘asset’ of choice is a book (and I have written seven books so far), but that doesn’t have to be your asset. Your asset can be a YouTube video, an Instagram post, a LinkedIn article, a newsletter – anything that you don’t have to maintain and can live on its own is something that can work for you while you are sleeping. YouTube videos are constantly being watched. Instagram posts are read by your friends and then by others through your tags. LinkedIn articles are presented to those searching for specific subjects. All it takes is the discovery of one asset, and then you get another follower.
Your personal brand is vital to your career, whether you are in management consulting or working for a not-for-profit organization. The working world is smaller than you think, so even at an extremely small company, your brand can give you opportunities you don’t even know about. It used to be that when someone told me they worked for ‘Google’ or ‘Microsoft’, it meant something about them (and it still does today to some extent). But nowadays, I (and I’m sure many employers) care more about what I (you) can bring to them, not just who I (you) have worked for. And a big part of what you bring is communicated through the brand you built. Whether you are just starting out or a veteran in your company for several decades, your brand is a key part of your career.