08/24/2012 07:51 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

How (and Why) to Build Your Personal Brand


When I tell people I have written a book about personal branding, I get a lot of blank stares. This is because they don't associate me -- a retired tax partner from Ernst & Young -- with the topic. They think that personal brands are for celebrities but not for the likes of them or me.

I explain that ordinary people who aspire to successful careers also need to think about their brands. Personal branding is just as important for bank managers and accountants and human resource specialists as it is for actors and advertising executives and sports figures.

You already have a brand

This does not make intuitive sense to most people, and the question I am asked most often is "why do I need a personal brand? I am not Warren Buffet or Conrad Black or Serena Williams." My response is that you've asked the wrong question. You already have a brand -- it might not be accurate, and it might not be the brand you would like to have -- but you have one.

Think about a person you work with occasionally but don't know well. Now quickly pick three adjectives to describe him or her -- for example, "smart, bossy and ambitious" or "creative, helpful and shy." You don't know the person well, so the brand might not be accurate. But it is the brand you will use when you decide whether to pick that person to be on your team, or whether you want to work for her, or have him work for you.

We all use brands to make quick assessments of products, companies and people. When you want a cup of coffee, you don't work through a mental checklist of price, flavour, atmosphere, etc. You use the shortcut solution of picking the brand you like -- Tim Horton's, Starbucks or the neighbourhood coffee bar.

The brand you don't want

Unless you are in a witness protection program, you want a brand that makes people remember you. Being known as "punctual, nice and diligent" will mean you are lost in the crowd when it comes to promotions, and on the short list when downsizing looms. What is important is to take a careful look at what you want your brand to be, and then take steps to develop it.

The key elements of a successful brand

Any brand can help you succeed in your career as long as it:

 Plays to your strengths. There is no point trying to be known for something you're not good at.

 Is authentic. A false brand will trip you up sooner or later -- think about Tiger Woods.

 Aligns with what is valued in your workplace or career. Being known for taking risks works well in some business sectors and not so well in others. Mark Carney can't afford to include "adventurous" in his brand.

 Is known to others. You need brand recognition and a plan to get there.

How to develop brand recognition

Working on a strategy for personal brand recognition should start as soon as your career starts. Many people make the mistake of putting it off: "I can't show off my expertise because I'm still learning" or "I need to wait until I hone my public speaking skills" or, "My shyness means other people will always shine brighter than I."

But anyone can find ways to increase visibility. For example:

 Volunteer to be on a committee or task force -- people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and actually do the work are always in short supply. Just make sure you pick the right opportunities that will play to your brand, and let people know about your contribution.

 Seize the opportunity to learn about a new development in your profession, industry or workplace. Is there a new law that will impact your business? Has a competitor developed a new game-changing product? Find out as much as you can, and let your colleagues know what you've discovered. You'll be the "expert" before you know it.

 If you're shy, and therefore feel awkward speaking up in meetings, plot your strategy in advance. Ask the meeting organizer in advance for the opportunity to share some information so that you can practice in advance and know you have a spot on the agenda. Or ask a mentor to single you out in the meeting for your opinion of a given topic (that you have thought about in advance).

You can download worksheets to help you develop your personal branding strategy at