People reinvent themselves all the time—to take on a new challenge, shift into more-meaningful work, or rebut perceptions that have hindered their career progress. Sometimes the changes are major (a financial services manager moves into retail, a venture capitalist becomes a life coach). Sometimes the rebranding is subtle, as for an executive who wants to advance but needs to overcome the knock that he’s “not good with numbers.” Taking control of your personal brand may mean the difference between an unfulfilling job and a rewarding career. As Longfellow noted, “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” Your path may make perfect sense to you, but how can you persuade others to embrace your new brand—and take you seriously?
Rebranding isn’t easy, and if your plan is poorly thought out, you’ll end up confusing yourself and others. Start by determining where you really want to invest your energy. Check out relevant industry trade journals, do informational interviews, even try some internships. (They’re not just for college students anymore; VocationVacations, for instance, enables people to apprentice with professionals, ranging from schooner captains to alpaca ranchers to brewmasters.) If you’re looking to advance or shift laterally within your company, see if a shadow program or a sabbatical is available—and seek out a mentor who can guide you.
Next you need to build the skills necessary for your new path. If you’ve been a game developer for the past decade, you may understand the technology better than anyone else in the company. But if you want to move into video game marketing, technical savvy isn’t enough; ask yourself what else you need to know—and how to learn it. For Heather, a nonprofit manager who decided to make a new career of her interest in transportation engineering, that meant returning to school for a doctorate and developing her expertise early on as a faculty research assistant. Learning the skills you need will give you the confidence to start publicizing your new identity—and the credibility required to assume it.
What’s your unique selling proposition? That’s what people will remember, and you can use it to your advantage. After losing popularity to newer, even more right-wing talking heads, the conservative pundit Ann Coulter had to reinvent herself. She didn’t entirely abandon her old brand; she reconfigured it to compete in a new marketplace. Leveraging her unique blend of blonde vixen and conservative firebrand, Coulter is now courting gay Republicans who enjoy diva-style smack talk.
As Coulter understood, previous experience can distinctively color your new brand and help you stand out. Heather, the former nonprofit manager, says, “I tried to offer the value-added of having a different perspective.” She’d say to her new engineering colleagues, “You know how to build roads. But I worked in the community where you’re building the road, and here’s how it impacts people.” Heather says, “That was my foot in the door.”
Finally, use distinguishing characteristics to your advantage, even if they’re not strictly relevant to your work. Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor and my previous employer (I headed up communications when he ran for Massachusetts governor), is under five feet tall. He knew that people seeing him for the first time would be surprised—and he didn’t want his height to be a distraction. So he’d loosen up crowds with a joke or two about his stature and, in the same vein, titled his campaign book I’ll Be Short. Like it or not, “short” was part of his brand—and he shrewdly leveraged it.
You used to write award-winning business columns…and now you want to review restaurants? It’s human nature to have many interests, to seek new experiences, and to want to develop new skills. Unfortunately, however, people often view that as the sign of a dilettante. It’s unfair, but to protect your personal brand, you need to develop a coherent narrative that explains exactly how your past fits into your present. “I used to write about the business side of many industries, including food and wine,” you might say. “I realized that my big-picture knowledge of agricultural trends and business finance uniquely positioned me to cover restaurants with a different perspective.” It’s like a job interview: You’re turning what could be perceived as a weakness (“He doesn’t know anything about food, because he’s been a business reporter for 20 years”) into a compelling strength that people will remember (“He’s got a different take on the food industry, because he has knowledge most other people don’t”).
The key is not to explain your transition in terms of your own interests (“I was bored with my job and decided to try something else,” or “I’m on a personal journey to find the real me”) but to focus on the value your prior experience brings. This is particularly relevant for the fresh-out-of-college set, whose early career opportunities have been hobbled by the recession. A stint flipping burgers may not be the ideal résumé builder, but you can get credit for learning valuable skills on the front line of a customer service organization—if you tell your story well.
One caveat is that your narrative must be consistent with your past. Politicians are pilloried for obvious, poll-driven personality changes. (Witness Al Gore’s unsuccessful reinvention of himself during the 2000 presidential campaign from eco-wonk to podium-banging “people versus the powerful” crusader for the proletariat.) You, too, will be called out fast if you’re seen as abandoning your roots, shading the truth, or not acknowledging your history. It was big news last year when Alex Bogusky, the hipster impresario of Crispin Porter + Bogusky—an ad agency famed for its work on behalf of corporate clients such as Burger King and Coke—left advertising to champion environmental causes and run a center for activists in Boulder, Colorado. His socially conscious rebranding was directly challenged in a Fast Company profile that quoted a number of former staffers deriding his purportedly abrasive management style. Successful rebranding doesn’t involve inventing a new personal
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