Building a successful personal brand

Lots of people that I have mentored over the years have asked me about building their personal brand so that they can develop their career. I get asked this a lot because I made partner at 35 – five years after joining PwC as a manager – and then got into the UK board of the firm five years later. I suppose people want to know the secret! I will be speaking about this at the Success Talks conference on Friday 3 February.

Building your career and a strong personal brand can be seen as a composite of:

– academic and professional qualifications (mostly gained early in your career)

– developing a depth and breadth of work experience

– personal development to hone interpersonal skills and self-awareness.

– navigating the politics of the organisation.

– external projection to the market .

The purpose of a personal brand is to differentiate yourself based on your own core values and maximise the chances of success in a highly competitive world. This doesn’t mean being selfish. For instance I’m very much a team player and I always set out to be the best at building and leading teams.

I worked out what the organisation valued in potential partners and prioritised working on that. Understanding what your organisation really values (as opposed to what it says it values) isn’t always easy. You need to observe what behaviour gets rewarded and talk to people who have been around for a while. There is what you do and then there is how you do it. Both matter.

In my case building a good track record of the results and showing behaviours that the organisation valued was the key. These “good” behaviours included coaching people, speaking out on difficult matters and being helpful to others even when there was no immediate benefit to me. I also had an MBA from London Business School which I found personally very useful – it aided my transition from the public sector significantly by filling in gaps in my work experience.

Early career development is different as technical skills and professional and academic qualifications are more highly valued at that stage. Depth of specialism gets junior people promoted more quickly but lack of breadth and interpersonal skills later can become a limiting factor, so a balance is needed. As careers develop, technical expertise and qualifications become hygiene factors and more subjective (and political) factors take over. Career development becomes much more critically dependent on soft skills such as influencing, negotiation and leadership. Investment in personal development can pay back significantly – especially developing self-awareness.

Of course your personal brand will develop over time and may undergo substantial change. In my 20 years at PwC I was first known for infrastructure finance where I got a reputation for good client service and, particularly, innovation in new areas. After that I built a strong reputation in people and HR matters before moving successively to lead the Government & Public Sector practice and then our work in Africa. Each role required specific skills but throughout I’ve tried to retain a set of principles based on my authentic self – this is based on focusing on engaging with people and building trust-based relationships, honesty and transparency, a non-hierarchical and inclusive approach and a requirement for high standards of client service. These principles have served me well in my various roles – whatever the technical requirements of the job. They represent my authentic personal brand and it’s made me stand out enough to be successful.

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