Managing the Brand: You

Pace finds that “perception is reality” when it comes to personal branding

Some marketing experts consider “personal branding” as synonymous with self-marketing, whereby an employee advertises a set of skills (often on a website or blog page) apart from, yet also as a part of, the larger corporation to which he or she belongs. Kimberly Pace, assistant clinical professor of management at the Owen School, takes a more expansive view. In her classes she teaches MBA students that personal branding is how an individual actively and deliberately establishes a desired identity.

“Brand strategy is much more than a logo or symbol,” Pace says. “In personal branding, perception is reality. How do people perceive you before they meet you face to face, when they meet you, and after they’ve met you?'

Borrowing a slogan used in Starbucks’ formative days, Pace says simply, “Everything matters.” In other words, executives and executives-to-be should be cognizant of all aspects of their “presentation” – including appearance, tone of voice, word choice, carriage and posture, eye contact, written and verbal communication skills, and attention to detail.


“You can’t just pay attention to one little piece. You’ve got to pay attention to everything,” Pace insists.

She breaks “everything” down into three components:

  1. Pre-presence (introductory e-mails or letters, voicemail, referrals, depictions on Facebook and MySpace)
  2. Presence (impact on others during face-to-face meetings)
  3. Post-presence (follow-up and continuing influence)

Because Pace began her career as a singer/dancer/actress specializing in opera, she filters the world of marketing through the lens of a performer. She thinks all businesspeople benefit if they develop the kinds of skills actors use in improv—thinking on one’s feet, reading an audience/client, and reacting quickly to unexpected situations.

“Managers, executives, and future CEOs are always on stage,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re doing a one-on-one with someone, if they’re hiring or firing someone, or if they’re at a trade show and a major crisis happens. How they perform at that moment really helps define who they are and says a lot about the company and the company’s brand.”

Of course, there are downsides to personal branding, as well, writes Daniel Schwabel, publisher of the online magazine, Personal Branding. Some employers are skittish that certain employees with niche expertise will attract so much attention that competitors recruit them away. They also fear that if an individual puts a spotlight on the company and then blunders or fails, the company’s brand will be tarnished in the process. Take, for example, the award-winning journalist Jayson Blair, who was found to have concocted facts and plagiarized stories from other sources. In order to protect a brand esteemed for its integrity, managing editors of the New York Times were forced to spend months doing damage control and rebuilding trust. Are the benefits of personal branding, executives ask, worth such a risk to the company at large?

On an individual level, personal branding can have its own pitfalls if managers and executives aren’t appropriately attuned to it. Pace says that one of the first lessons that managers should learn is that if they don’t define their own brands, someone will define it for them. So, for instance, an employee is named team leader for an important, but boring project. The manager grouses and puts forth a half-hearted effort, and although the job gets done, other team members covertly define that leader as a slacker. That brand follows the manager when duties are assigned to the next task, which may be far more interesting and exciting.

As another example, a young woman distinguishes herself as the most skilled troubleshooter in the group. Over time, whenever her management team takes on an assignment, she is given the role of troubleshooter. She begins to feel boxed in. She would like to have a chance to assume a more creative marketing role, but she is battling against the personal brand others have assigned to her.

In both these instances, says Pace, these individuals have done a poor job of managing their brands. She cites Madonna as a celebrity who is brilliant at managing her brand – and at a high level so that she always stays a step ahead of what the next audience will demand.

Pace explains, “One thing I say to my students is that you shouldn’t get stuck. It’s not like your brand stays static forever. You can stay true to who you are, but change how you present and share who you are and what you bring to the table as you move through your career. Be authentic, but always try to manage perception.”

In the corporate world, particularly as people move up the ranks, it’s easy to have their personal brands misinterpreted. A CEO sees himself as a can-do, aggressive businessman, but his managers perceive him as abrasive and egomaniacal. A team leader views her approach as equable and fair, yet her employees describe her as distant and cold.

Pace claims that a lack of feedback leads to this disconnect between self-perception and reality. “The big thing I say to my MBA students is that no matter where you are in your career you’ve got to find ways to give and receive feedback,” she says. Pace then proceeds to bombard them with feedback as they practice their communication skills in her class. “I say to my students that I am going to be the one person who is brutally honest with you, because I care so much about your being successful.”

Such a reality check can be tough. It demands a thick skin and an openness to introspection. Feedback is an even tougher pill for CEOs to swallow. The mentors they had when they were younger and newer have long since gone away, and to foster productivity, CEOs hire like-minded executives and vice-presidents who tend to affirm the ideas of the one in charge. Because they need to exude an aura of control within the company, “CEOs tend to prefer to talk to outsiders (consultants) and other CEOs about their personal brands,” say Pace.

She adds that feedback is not particularly helpful unless someone also offers solutions. The CEO who has been tagged as abrasive must learn to make a concerted effort to speak more openly and use less declaratives when dealing with employees. The team leader deemed distant and cold can smile more and deliberately engage in more group discussions. Colleagues tend to be forgiving, Pace says, and they appreciate others who are trying to improve and live up to their authentic brands.

Many MBA students downplay just how important personal branding is to their future careers. Owen School faculty members are often contacted by recruiters and potential employers, who call to inquire about particular students. “The big tell for me is if I can’t remember th