One of my close friends at work asked me the other day what advice I had around building a brand. Building a brand is a key skill that you learn as a management consultant – in fact, building the right brand for you can significantly accelerate your career not just in management consulting but in general (though a lot of my experience is in management consulting).

Building a brand helps you:

  • Get your name out there without doing a lot of self promotion (this includes getting onto projects that you want to get on, working with people you want to work with, getting customers and more)
  • Help provide a direction for what you want to do and work on
  • Provides you with ‘safety’ in case you make mistakes

Early on, when I started at Deloitte, there was an all hands session in consulting where the partners fielded anonymous questions from all of the consultants. One of the questions seemed innocuous but little did I realize that the answer was one that helped my career the most. The question was “how do you build a brand at the analyst level when you do not know what you want to do and have limited expertise in any field?”

It was a really good question because a lot of the previous conversations and discussions with the partners talked about the importance of building a brand.

In summary, one of the partners explained the progression from analyst all the way to partner. You go from analyst, to consultant, to senior consultant, to manager, senior manager and then partner. And going from analyst to partner, picture an hourglass where the bottom is the analyst and the top is the partner. At the bottom, as an analyst or consultant, you work on many, many projects. You do not really have a field of expertise or significant knowledge in any one area but your ‘brand’ is on doing excellent work, on time and taking initiative. This ‘wide’ part of the hourglass is the analyst taking on a wide breadth of projects.

As you work on more and more projects, you will slowly start narrowing what type of projects (either ones that you want to work on or projects where you are slowly building expertise). The partner suggested that the most successful consultants are ones that (and picture a venn diagram here), like to do certain projects (one circle) and the market wants certain projects (another circle) and the bigger the overlap, the more successful the consultant is. When you get to the manager level, you are in the middle of the hourglass and have a solid idea of what kind of projects or work you deliver and the expertise that you have.

As you move up, now the hourglass starts widening. The senior manager’s role and responsibility shifts from project delivery to project management and while they may have a certain industry or field of expertise, they are doing multiple projects in that industry. For example, if you are known for delivering IT strategies, you may slowly be delivering more and more IT projects where the end result may be an IT strategy, IT operating model, IT business case, etc.

Finally, at the partner level, you may be on multiple projects but for most partners, they are spending a short amount of time on each project so not enough to manage the project but enough to provide oversight and guidance to the senior manager if needed. They have both a wide breadth of projects that they work on and a great level of depth in their industry (due to the number of projects that they worked on as a senior manager). This relates to the wide ‘top’ on the hourglass.

Thinking about this hourglass has helped me in my career – essentially helping me understand what I need to focus on in different parts of my career as I move up in the firm.

Here are a few other things that I have learned as part of building my brand:

Be consistent in your brand

Whether it’s the work that you do, the projects that you deliver or the deliverables that you produce, be consistently excellent. I went to training for managers and as we went through a mock project, many of my team members did not take it seriously. It’s possible that I should have eased up a bit but I also felt that if I eased up on this piece of work, I would ease up on other pieces of work and that was not what I wanted to do. Maybe I cared a bit too much about delivering great work but that was part of my brand and I wanted to remain consistent.

Find where your brand and the project intersect

One consultant that I learned a lot from on building a brand was Shawn. Shawn was known as the innovation expert and every project that he did was innovative in some way. Here’s the thing though, not every project was initially ‘innovative’. I realized that what he did was try to introduce some element of innovation into every project that he was on – whether he was crowdsourcing ideas, building apps, creating video deliverables or producing infographics as an executive summary. He took control of the project and his passion and energy was so contagious that the project sponsors could not help but be persuaded into seeing his way.

Keep your key customers happy

Some practical advice on building a brand is really keeping your key customers happy – and this may not just be clients but also your managers and partners. Again, with Shawn, I saw that even though he was doing innovative things (where he often asked for forgiveness than for permission), he was keeping the clients and the partners happy. He was keeping clients happy by delivering what they wanted (with a little extra to get what he wanted – for example, the client was looking for a word report but we also delivered a video summary of the work that we did). He also kept the partners happy by staying under budget and keeping the margins on the project.

Don’t be afraid to promote yourself

One thing that I’m known for is building creative slides and infographics for every project and proposal that I work on. I never settle for what I have done before and I am always trying to push the envelope in what I can do. One proposal, I wanted to create a magazine feel to it because I wanted it to be on the desk of an executive that caught the eyes of other executives walking by. On another proposal, I created custom graphics for the bid and together with a business development executive, came up with the tagline that eventually won the bid. I collected all of these slides and deliverables and compiled it into a PPT deck – then any time I work with others, I share my PPT deck with them – not just as a way to help them but also to get my name out there as well. It might not happen in all cases but there may be times where those consultants get asked by other individuals where they got the deck from and my deck (and my name / brand) gets shared.

One other thing – I’m not very good at promoting myself. But I heard some good advice on this – if you really believe in the value of whatever you want to share (say it’s a book that you wrote, templates that you have created, etc.), then by sharing, you are adding value to the individuals that you are sharing with. Sometimes it can feel weird promoting yourself but if you don’t share, will anyone know that you have self-published five books?

What other tips or lessons have you learned from building a brand? Is building a brand important for your career? What else would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments – I read each and every comment.