We all have a professional image, though most of us don’t consciously think about it very often. Your professional image is similar, yet distinct, from your personal brand. The way I think of it, your personal brand is the explicit message you put out there about who you are and what you do career-wise. Your professional image is the way you act day-to-day on a more ordinary level; it is the message you send about your “competence, your character, and your commitment,” according to HBS professor Laura Morgan Roberts.
For most of us, there is usually a disconnect between how we want others to view us (desired professional image) and how colleagues actually do think of us (perceived professional image). This is disappointingly clear when we receive results of a 360-degree assessment.
How to align your desired professional image and your perceived professional image:
Figure out what your perceived professional image is. How does your boss see you? What do your co-workers think about you? Review your interactions with them, and take your best, most honest guess. Be creative in gathering this information: consider how they treat you in meetings, whether you are a favorite (or in the running) for good assignments, and what they have said about you to others. Knowing this can inform you of where gaps exist and where you have an opportunity to focus your attention.
Know the stereotypes that are at play. You probably fit into a category of some sort where stereotypes have affected your image. Your age, your race, your gender, your line of work, your hobbies, your appearance, your educational background, and your past behavior are all things that may distort the image of your true identity. While these biases aren’t intentional, they are a part of human nature, so it is worth your time to acknowledge them and address them.
Monitor your verbals and nonverbals. Consider your vocal pitch, tone, accent, rate of speech, use of grammar, and what you disclose. But also consider your appearance, your demeanor, and your attitude. Think about if you want to strategically alter any of these depending on the situation.
That said, sometimes actions speak louder than words. Consider your job performance. However, consider all aspects of it: your individual contribution, your teamwork and collaboration, your rapport and relationships with others, the discretionary things that you do above and beyond your job description, and your internal and external network.
Build credibility but maintain authenticity. The key to managing your professional image is to use these tactics to build credibility while still maintaining authenticity. Here is a stellar example of how this works from Intuit Sr. VP Nora Denzel:
“When I worked at IBM, my boss asked me to take a job in Tucson. Because my husband lived in California, the commute was very hard. Soon, people started asking me how the commute was going and I realized early on I had to be careful with what I put out there.
Should I say the absolute truth: that I knew the flight attendants better than I knew my friends; that I was missing birthdays; that I was constantly tired? Or do I simply say ‘I am learning new things?’ The point is, don’t lie, but be selective with what you put out there.”