Choose your language:
In a perfect world, we’d all be recognized and promoted only for our work competence. But in the real world, your professional brand is a big factor in whether or not your career advances.
Your professional brand encompasses a number of traits, from work habits to personality and professional appearance. Think about your favorite colleague to work with. He is probably good at his job but also has other qualities you appreciate. Maybe it’s flexibility, speed or a great sense of humor. Or your most admired coworker is generous with her time and expertise and gives credit where it’s due.
Now think about your least favorite―or least respected―colleague. Does he whine every time you ask for something? Throw up 20 obstacles before even considering any new possibility? Or perhaps you work with someone who dreams big but doesn’t follow through, creating unnecessary work for colleagues.
Even if those two colleagues have a similar work ethic and competence level, the respected colleague is a lot better positioned for a promotion. Which type do you want to be? If you're already working hard, then taking the small steps to adjust your brand will maximize your chances for a promotion while costing you little additional effort.
It’s difficult―but not impossible―to shape your brand. But in order to shape it, you have to understand what you’re working with. And that means having some difficult conversations.
How to take politeness out of the equation
First, think of three colleagues you work with but who aren’t in your inner circle. Choose coworkers you have a tricky or even uncomfortable relationship with. They can be higher-ups, peers or people you supervise.
Now take the time to call each of these people individually and say something like this: “I need your help with something. I would like to know what people think of me so I can work on improving myself, and I reached to you because I know you’ll be honest with me.” That sets up an expectation of honesty that people will try to live up to.
But they probably won’t tell you the truth without a few tactful diversions. After all, sharing uncomfortable truths is both uncomfortable and risky for the person on the other end of the phone. So use some skillful redirections like, “OK, thanks for the positive feedback, but let’s table that for now. What I really need to know are the areas I need to improve.” If someone still hesitates, try asking what other people in the office think of you, which helps distance the speaker from their opinion. Another follow-up could be some version of, “If you were striking out on your own, would I be one of the core people you’d bring? Why / why not?”
Make sure to write down everything they say as they’re speaking. First of all, it will keep you honest. If you wait until after the call, you’ll only remember the things that resonated with you―probably the traits you're already aware of. Also, you might find yourself later wondering what your colleague really meant. Going back to your notes will give you time to think about their responses after you get past your initial emotional response. Your notes will also help you ask follow-up questions if you’re still unsure about the meaning.
At the end of the call, let the person know you’re truly grateful for their honesty. After all, they just stuck out their neck for you. As a bonus, your openness to feedback and gratitude may go a long way to improving a difficult relationship.
Read next week’s Career Hacker column to learn exactly how to use this information to improve your personal brand.
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Lauren Alexaki has spent over eight years in the IT staffing and services industry. She is an expert in relationship management, client relations, staffing operations and business development.