A strong work ethic, networking skills, and creativity are all necessary to get ahead in the workplace, but they may not be enough. To land that huge promotion, you may need to be more strategic about how you present yourself.
When your managers and your managers’ managers are gathered behind closed doors, your success may depend on your office image. Creating the right personal brand at work could be integral to securing big promotions for which you otherwise would’ve been overlooked.
“Personal brand is really how you portray yourself and in every interaction, whether that’s in written form, how you handle your communication on social media, LinkedIn, and your emails, as well as how you handle yourself in person and the reputation of your work,” said Kathy Gersch, chief commercial officer of business strategy firm Kotter. “Be intentional and consistent with what you want to be known for.”
Voters in the meetings who decide promotions may not know your full work repertoire, but they can still act in your favor if they have a coherent image of you to latch onto. Otherwise, even if you do solid work, your lack of presence in decisionmakers’ minds could stall your career momentum.
Building your brand
The difference between a positive reputation and a personal brand is the underlying strategy and forethought. A worker may have a reputation for being friendly, but that’s different from intentionally incorporating good communication and optimism into every aspect of their work. Reputation is more amorphous and thus less credible as reasoning behind promotions or unique opportunities. A personal brand is more reliable in the minds of higher-ups because it demonstrates that you consistently and purposefully commit to certain work values.
The concept combines aspects of networking, self-promotion, and good old-fashioned ambition that are well-known and used by previous generations of workers, but is updated for the internet-age cliché of individuals being their own brands. With the rise of social media influencers and online thought leaders, making yourself into a brand and selling yourself as a specific package of skills and qualities is pitched as the new way to get ahead.
To build a personal professional brand, you should reflect on what principles you want to highlight in the workplace, be it productivity, collaboration, leadership, or other positive traits.
Be authentic because people can spot insincere colleagues, Joe Hart, CEO of professional training company Dale Carnegie, said. Reflect on which qualities you rely on most, what your values are, and what you lean on, he said. Next, come up with ways that you can highlight those principles across all your workplace interactions.
Then, have more workplace interactions. The more connections you make, the more you grow your brand within the company. You’ll become a larger presence in the minds of your colleagues and be exposed to opportunities that you can only access by seeking them out.
“Make the extra effort to build relationships outside your standard chain of command so people know who you are, what work you do, and what you can provide from a value standpoint,” Gersch said. “That’s a lot of what promotions are about. Some of it’s about what you’ve done, but it’s also about what you have the potential to do, and if people aren’t aware of all the capabilities you have, that may not get weighed into those decisions.”
Having trouble deciding on which of your qualities to build your brand around? Prioritize what’s already working, advises Laurie Ruettimann, author of Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career. She suggests taking a “personal inventory” by printing out positive comments about your work and reviewing them to take stock of what managers and colleagues believe your best work qualities to be. These comments can be casual kudos, annual performance reviews, or a complimentary email.
But don’t wait to gather a huge cache of these comments, Ruettimann adds. Approach your colleagues and higher-ups first, and ask what’s been working, what’s fallen flat, and how to increase your impact in the organization. Gathering this information will provide a solid launchpad for your personal brand.
How to humble brag
Why does lacking a personal brand inhibit career growth?
“It’s a lack of bravery. It’s a lack of courageousness,” Ruettimann tells Fortune. “It’s a lack of the wherewithal to say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I believe in. This is how I contribute.’”
Getting ahead requires advocating for yourself and owning your accomplishments in a strategic way. Some people dislike talking themselves up, and others do it in a distasteful way. To make people aware of your accomplishments without sounding insufferable, talk about it in the context of pushing the organization closer to its goals.
Instead of speaking directly about your talents, tie your contributions into discussions about how your company is winning in the marketplace. Talk about how you went about solving specific problems, as that illustrates how you’ve helped the team, and shows your unique skill set without seeming self-absorbed, Ruettimann suggested.
Everyone has a different level of comfort in terms of humble bragging at work, and groups that are traditionally minorities in the workplace typically feel more uneasy about it, she added. But everyone should try to find a balance where they feel comfortable and also prideful. Sharing your contributions is critical to reaping the fruits of your labor.
“Be intentional about sharing that information not in a boastful way, but in a productive way, with your organization so that they understand the full value of your skill sets,” Gersch said. “If you don’t share that information, people won’t know.”
Doing the extra legwork
Social media, outside company bonding, and cross-team events are all opportunities to go the extra mile to strengthen your brand. Social media, namely LinkedIn, is a good way to build a cohesive image and reach a wider professional audience.
“Now your colleagues can see you more and more on LinkedIn, Threads, Instagram, or TikTok, so it’s important to have some continuity on your public facing pages,” Ruettimann says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship now for better or for worse. You are who you are at work, but you’re also who you are outside of work, and they’re connected now more than ever.”
Hart framed a person’s professional and social media brands as concentric circles. The innermost circle is your authentic self, he said, and each ring outward should accurately reflect the core.
Gersch echoed this, advising that workers not act drastically different in their private lives than they do professionally, as the areas of one’s life often bleed into each other. Don’t betray the values you espouse at work after hours—it may come back to bite you.
According to Gersch, the image you curate as your personal brand is holistic, and is affected by all your actions and statements whether explicitly in the context of work or not. In the same vein, she suggested investing time in events outside of work, like weekend company hangouts. Getting face time with coworkers out of the office allows them to have a fuller picture of you and understand your goals and positive traits better.
Volunteering for new initiatives at work also shows that you’re a self-starter, and allows you to showcase skills that might not always be on display in your day-to-day tasks, Gersch said.
“Folks that raise their hand outside of their day job to participate in things that the organization is trying to move forward are enabled to build new relationships and show skills that may not get used in their day to day,” Gersch told Fortune.
The main goal of promoting yourself through a personal brand is putting your best qualities on display—and you do that by identifying them, and then making them noticeably useful to people calling the shots.