Advancing Your Career: Personal Branding Strategy for Positive First Impressions
Miriam Bamberger, CPCC, and Heather Bradley, CPCC, are the co-founders of The Flourishing Company, which helps emerging professionals sharpen their leadership skills to generate immediate and lasting changes in their ability to successfully manage complex work relationships. For additional information, visit: www.TheFlourishingCompany.com.
Have you ever taken a photograph using the manual setting to focus the lens? In the few seconds it takes to get a clear, crisp image in the viewfinder, the picture can be lost. The automatic focus is much quicker and more reliable.
Focusing on your own personal image requires a similar automatic response. One of the secrets to laying the foundation for personal branding is to develop your style so that it is natural, comfortable, and "automatic." The most successful professionals have developed an approach that works from the inside out. They have assessed their career goals and know what role and position they will foster. The tone and tenor of their manner and intensity has been established.
For example, midway through the O.J. Simpson trial, prosecutor Marcia Clark attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to soften her perceived hard edge by changing her hair and dress. Another well-known attorney, Gloria Allred, currently representing Amber Frey, the girlfriend in the Scott Petersen case – reassures us with her consistent imagery of reliably steady hair, strident demeanor and quick tongue. Similarly, attorney Johnnie Cochran defends high profile cases and is often seen in custom-tailored suits with as many as three bold patterns, non-verbally identifying him as a very confident man. These patterns are usually displayed in the weave of the jacket, the pattern in the tie and the stripe of the shirt. He adds to his strength and power with a heavy black-framed pair of eyeglasses.
According to the World Future Society, image management is one of the growth fields in the coming decade. As technology has become pervasive, actors are not the only people who work in front of the camera. Meetings and videoconferences are taped and televised. The image of an attorney is an important part of developing a book of business, and that image has to work on an international level.
Regardless of their work quality, attorneys with poor personal image will be judged accordingly. While image management is often considered one of the nebulous aspects of professional development because it is so personal, developing a personal brand is just as important as finding a mentor and putting in long hours at the associate level. Without a personal brand, an attorney will find it difficult to advance, and will find that a lack of care about image will speak for itself. Laura Hagen, founding partner of the legal recruiting firm Major, Hagen and Africa, suggests that attorneys look to what the most respected partners look like for additional guidance on the subtleties of a particular firm. Attorneys should ask themselves: "How can I develop a personal signature style, a brand to create a consistent career message?"
Business leaders as well are turning to professionals to enhance their image. Dayne Kono, president and managing director of Masuda Funai Eifert & Mitchell, knows firsthand about the importance of that first impression. A Hawaii native who is fluent in Japanese, Kono is often addressed in Korean, Japanese, or English. In an effort to get beyond the initial impression and build a relationship, Kono recommends that attorneys be consistent in how they present themselves. In his experience, eyeglasses inhibit eye contact. Especially in multi-cultural situations, consider wearing contact lenses to avoid miscommunication. In addition, dress to meet the expectations of clients – a powerful suit for an important meeting or court appearance. If your client arrives from a country where status and rank are important, dressing in a more formal manner will match their expectations. Similarly, in legal counsel settings, you are dealing with sensitive personal matters, so build trust with a color in your tie or scarf that matches or enhances your eye color.
Developing your personal brand for career advancement requires a review of both non-verbal traits and professional attire. The place to start is in the mirror.
How does your body connect to what is hanging in your closet? For most of us, there is some disparity between the professional garments that express our personality and the person who fits into those clothes. Paula McMenamin, a partner with McDermott, Will & Emery in Chicago, asks herself, "Could I wear this in court?" Reserving time to study your closet and cull ill-fitting or poor quality garments is part of the investment in your image management plan. The perception created by a first impression is very strong, so keep this in mind when culling your closet for appropriate business images. A work wardrobe should be interchangeable, especially if you travel. Accepting the guidance of image professionals to identify work-appropriate garments, analyze fit, and coordinate colors is another way to continue the aesthetic process.
First, look to your physical presence. What is your general build? Are you petite, or do you support a large, muscular frame? In figure drawing, the "perfect" body is made of eight head lengths: one head length for the head, two head lengths from shoulder to waist, one head length for the hip, two head lengths from the hip to the knee, and two head lengths from the knee to the foot. Use this art principle as a way to determine your proportion challenges when you shop for clothing. Are the sleeves too long, the jacket too short, or the hem lengths off?
Making the connection between your body and a wardrobe that fits is essential in projecting a memorable impression. Since we are not all proportionate, taking the time to properly tailor garments is key. Connecting your physique to the garments in your closet or to your image aspirations will help bridge any gap. The overall appearance strengthens when design elements are added. For example, film director Alfred Hitchcock appeared much larger when he wore a dark pin stripe suit on his massive frame, creating an aura of greater mystery. Madeleine Albright consistently wears tailored suits with a signature pin on the upper left side of the jacket to typify her brand image. Petite Judge Judy appears as a larger woman with great authority because she is wearing a black robe with shoulder pleats, adding to the power of her position.
Color selection is often a matter of preference or the latest fashions. Knowing what is "fashionable" is not the same as knowing what is professional. Fashion is a byproduct of current trends and world events expressed in fabric, style, and color. For example, as a counter to the national air of grief many were feeling after 9/11, a trend of colorful clothing emerged during the year following the tragedy. Conversely, professional dress standards and firm dress codes are generally immutable and offer a set of guidelines for appropriateness in the office. Often these codes are unspoken.
For attorneys, it's more important to focus on colors that flatter your hair, skin, and eye tones. Creating a visual harmony is an essential aspect of connecting to your client, jury, or peers. Others want to see a connection between your coloring and your clothing. To make sure this connection exists, stand in front of a mirror, close your eyes for three seconds, then open your eyes. You should see a blended perspective as all articles of clothing reflect back to the face. Avoid glaring colors or bulky objects.
Second, understand the roles and goals of your firm and your participation in the firm. Underpinning this is your personality. What is your true nature? We each have a personal internal rhythm that guides what we project to the outside world. Maintaining consistency in this area is just as important as the garments themselves. Dayne Kono suggests that appearing fit, healthy, and energetic are all an extension of a strong non-verbal message. A positive disposition is a key attribute in conveying a message of confidence and dependability. Your level of intensity is driven by your core personality.
Honestly assessing your innate style is also part of the branding equation. Are you a litigator who considers trial to be performance art? In the courtroom, taking center stage requires a position of power and attention. Attitude and dress should reflect a stronger presence, especially when you select the strong lines of a suit. Or is your style more cerebral, comfortable in the details of a complex contract? Are you an aspiring partner? Everyone has multiple facets to their personality, but generally one style dominates. Personality is expressed as part of your brand and, in many cases, brands you well ahead of your wardrobe selections. So if you wish to tone down a flamboyant persona, you may want to wear softer fabrics and muted color tones.
Paula McMenamin, a partner with McDermott, Will & Emery, specializes in wealth management. Notably, she attributes her success to consistent effort in key areas of practice management. The quality of the work and the timeliness of the response to the client are essential components of her personal brand. After that, McMenamin attributes: "(a) positive demeanor, an articulate manner, and a strong visual appearance" to shaping her career.
Thirdly, always be consistent in your approach to developing your professional presence. According to communication theory, trust and sincerity build faster when there is consistency and reliability. Jury trial experts Jo-Ellen Dimitrius, Ph.D, and Mark Mazzarella, authors of Put Your Best Foot Forward, conducted a study on the key ingredients to great impressions. The top three qualities that make a positive first impression are "sincerity/honesty," "caring/ considerate," and "reliability/performs as expected." To foster these branded traits, predictability in everyday attire and grooming is primary. Presenting a standard of quality makes it easier for others to believe that you are reliable, confident, and sincere. Laura Hagen suggests, "One should learn to be a good listener and respond with relevance." She further reminds attorneys to be "concerned when they are out in public at social events and maintain a consistent presence" in front of peers and potential clients.
When the many elements of style, fit, color, hair, and glasses are woven together with high-quality performance and an internal integrity, the result will leave a positive impression. Projecting your very best self becomes automatic. Just as you take time to determine career goals, taking the time to develop your personal branding strategy can make the difference in the image you project.
Maureen Costello is Principal of Image Launch and specializes in personal image development for men and women in organizations. Her articles have appeared in The Orient Express, Singapore Straits Times, and Fables Magazine. Her first book will be published in 2004. For more information, go to www.imagelaunch.com.
From the January/February 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®