How to Keep it Real and Build Your Brand at Work

Are you secretly wondering if you are managing your brand all wrong? Branding seems to be the double edge sword that can make or break careers. Are you putting too much or not enough energy in defining what makes you unique? Even with the best intentions, by the time people meet you, they’ve already decided how they feel about you based on your appearance, attitude, even your word choice.

As I started in corporate America, a place where I assumed everyone would be the same, I initially found some of my colleagues’ creativity to be a bit of a shock. They ate, slept, and drank creatively. In the office, I saw everything from hammer pants and platform shoes made of doll parts to people making stews on desktop warmers. Talented people are expected to be non-traditional- it’s part of the appeal- and it’s widely accepted that high performers are allowed to be exotic and make demands to create their ideal work environment.

The longer I paid attention, the more I was inspired by people who brought their whole selves to work. It began to sink into me that innovation was a lifestyle, not merely a product. The idea that within the workplace, we were as safe as we were in our homes, or even more safe to take risks, changed my opinion of work.

Innovation and personal expression all has to do with an ethic of self- care. When I change my hair, wear colorful floral jumpsuits, show people my tattoos, or change my appearance in any other way that makes me more comfortable. I am doing so with integrity and authenticity because it’s in my best interest and who I am, and it makes me feel freer to be more productive and creative at work.

Of course, you can’t take this too far- if everyone can do whatever they want in the workplace in the name of “freedom,” it’s anarchy, not a corporation. And it is possible to delude yourself into thinking that doing whatever you want is an expression of creativity when you’re not really finding innovative ways to do much of anything. You can’t merely wear personality quirks as a surface decoration- you have to apply your mindset to things beyond personal appearance and behavior.

Do you complain endlessly or only talk about your drinking exploits? Do you dress like a banker, an artist, or a future tech founder?

Perception is the reality. How you present yourself should depict your values. It’s troubling to people when they can’t quite figure you out.

● “He wants me to hire him to work with c-level executives, but he looks like he should be delivering packages on a bike.”

● “She says she’s all about philanthropy and giving back, but she drives an expensive car and constantly avoids volunteering outside of work hours.”

Maybe you have a friend that claims she’s a world traveler but has never left the country.

When you present a different image to your world, it raises a lot of red flags, and others won’t trust you. You also cause concern when your image doesn’t fit the situation like you show up to a formal event in jeans with your hair undone.

What does the image you present say about you?

Innovation is about seeing your life as malleable and imagining yourself as someone who can direct change. Innovation is about discovering how disconnected things connect and then affect the future.

1. Do your research and know your audience. If you’re going to a job interview, it’s not the right time to wear your floral jumpsuit or use bleep-worthy curse words. Prioritizing your comfort over reading the signals around you can create challenges for you in certain situations.

○ The right attire, vocabulary, and attitude will vary based on the situation. You don’t want to be viewed as trendy, but some things just won’t work in certain situations.

○ Consider the brand that will work for you in a given situation and make the necessary adjustments. Many employers now allow you to “dress for your day,” which means matching your appearance with who and where you are working for the moment. Formal policies about dress code acknowledge even when a certain image may be accurate, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate 24/7.

2. Know what matters to you. Your values are an essential part of developing an authentic image you present to the world. Are freedom and addressing inequality part of your value system? Travel? Money? Helping others? Investing in eco-friendly accessories or supporting women-owned businesses are great ways to integrate your “why” into your wardrobe.

3. Don’t fake it until you make it. Notice when your true-self and your image are out of alignment. If you feel uncomfortable you may be trying to present yourself as something you’re not. You’re not happy with your reality, so you’re pretending to be something else.

4. How do you want your colleagues to describe you when you are out of the room? Are you the idea person with unique solutions? Or are you the dead-serious focused team member that meets every deadline, even if it means working 12 hours on Sunday? What image is expected in your work environment? Does what’s acceptable and moving you forward at work allow you to look at yourself in the mirror each morning?

5. Who are you outside of the workplace? We are each made up of many interests, hopes, and dreams. Can people quickly guess your line of work and strengths when they meet you? Is it an accurate depiction of you? Are you continually correcting other’s assumptions of you based on your appearance?

Balance is key. You might be a casual person, but that doesn’t mean you can wear Birkenstocks and linen pants everywhere. There are many ways to present yourself as someone that understands professionalism without being overly formal or inauthentic.

Be honest about who you are, but don’t ruin your working reputation in the process.

When your true-self and your image match, it puts people at ease. You’re more likable when you’re aligned, and people can quickly “get you.” Think about the people you admire. You know who they are within a short time.

Think about how you show up in the world. Are you making your life more comfortable or more challenging?

You are (or have the potential to be) a change- maker, an idea person, someone whose unique approaches to problems are emulated and remembered. Your legacy will be cemented not by what you do but how you do it-- whether you did things the way everyone else did or stood out. Your brand can be your competitive advantage. If you need help defining what will help you win at work, sign up for a discovery session and let’s review where you want to go and your road map to success.

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As a leadership coach and writer, I share unwritten rules and the advice of my mentors to evolve your dream job into your dream life, taking control of your time and designing a set of values to lead you onward.

For more exercises like this one, subscribe to my newsletter and join my tribe of high achievers moving to the next level. For the steps to success and finding your purpose in life, check out my book, Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Moving Your Career Forward. It tells the story of how one woman found the time and energy to overcome the battle for advancement in corporate America.