The very first impressions of our personal brands stick like glue. Personal brand is a collection of intangible, imagined assessments of a person's attitude, character, ability to listen, work ethic, and a host of other things. And, like it or not, personal brand and the way we project ourselves are the sources others use to box us into categories: he's a clown, he's an idiot, he's smart, he's sincere, or - a really bad perception - he's inconsistent.
But the truth of who we are is a lot more complicated. A personal brand can be all those things, just not necessarily all at the same time. Perceived reality depends on who is watching and when. The good news, perceptions of brand can be changed, but the process isn't easy.
It's analogy time. Not too long ago I visited a sports bar with my daughter to watch a game. We had a good meal; not great, but good. The service was fine. Overall, an enjoyable visit. We paid our bill, chatted with the waitress, stood up, checked our belongings, and meandered to the door.
On the way out, I remember seeing a male employee flirting with a couple of young ladies (after all, spring was in the air). I didn't expect the young man to acknowledge us, but he was clearly preoccupied with other interests.
As we reached our car, this same distracted fellow bolted out of the restaurant and chased after us into the lot and with accusatory tone proclaimed, "Sir, you didn't pay your bill." If he had been paying attention to his company's brand and not his own interests, he'd have known that I was squared away. I showed him my receipt and he wandered back to the restaurant, no apologies, no comments.
The moral of the story? I haven't returned to that establishment and probably never will again. My perceptions of that restaurant were damaged because of one insignificant flaw.
Personal Brand: Handle with Care
Our personal brands are no less fragile than that of my sports bar. In fact, our own brands are probably even more vulnerable to changing perceptions. When thinking of personal brand, images are, well, more personal than with corporate brands. We feel crushed when others misinterpret our brands and worse when others deliberately try to damage our personages. Brands distinguish who we are. They're a human-made ability to form identity. Dogs don't think about their personal identity. They do what they're bred to do.
Brand is Fiction
In essence, for us human types, brands are an imagined fiction. They're an intangible thing we conjure up. The fascinating part is the fiction of brand becomes real, so much so we use brand to predict the future, quite accurately. This ability to predict the future is witnessed in the age-old teenager skill of pitting mom against dad. Mom may not let the kid stay out late, but dad won't care, thus, by knowing his/her parent brands, the teenager can predict how each will respond, thus predicting the future.
Don't fear the word 'fiction'. Fiction is only the manifestation of the philosophy of there's no such thing as absolute truth because each of us perceives the world from our own frames of reference. Fiction is a way of understanding the unseen and of constructing order which gives us a semblance of understanding, comfort, and security. Fiction becomes our reality.
Leader Context, Personal Brand, Change
So, what's the leader context in all this? Every mental image of us as leaders, as humans, as 'fellow passengers to the grave' (Dickens), is different depending on who is watching and when. Our close friends see us one way, our direct reports another, and our bosses see us other ways yet.
Because perceptions of behavior are so volatile, it's up to us as leaders to project consistent raw material imagery. Like it or not, others will use your raw material to conceive images of who they think you are.
The good news is negative personal brand can be fixed. Your personal brand is just that, personal. That's probably why so many leaders hold back their feelings. It's risky to open up to others. Ironically, closing up just assures that your brand will be perceived as untrustworthy and secretive. I'm sure there's any number of ways to repair brand, but the belief that people have a remarkable capacity to forgive mistakes when an apology is timely and sincere can't hurt. Take ownership, open up, admit to whatever is damaging your brand, and correct the image (dare I say, correct the fiction). People abhor a cover-up.
Who we are as humans is a conglomerate of experiences, interactions, education, upbringing, geography, place in family, religion, and a million other factors. We are living, breathing organisms, with constant ebbs and flows of projected imagery, fiction, and brand. Although much of how others see us is out of our control, ultimately we can be the masters of our own brands.
"O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us" – Robert Burns, Scottish Poet.