By Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov
When one of us (Sergey) was starting his career, he would use a warm up question when interviewing job candidates. An easy question, really, a gift to the candidate – an opportunity to briefly highlight their key achievements:
"In your previous companies/roles, what are you remembered for?"
Most people love this question. What's not to love? It's a license to brag.
But now and then, there would be an underwhelming answer. There would be little clarity on who owned the work, who produced the results, or why it was important. Those interviews used to end earlier than scheduled.
Reflection moment #1
Just for fun, think for a moment: how would you answer that question? What would be the criteria for choosing the highlights? Would you talk about results, relationships, expertise, personal characteristics, a particular defining event, or something else? Only positive or also not so positive memories? And who is it that you are remembered by?
What does it have to do with your success?
"Remember" refers to the past. "Know" lives in the now. Let's change the question to "To achieve career success on your terms, what are you known for and by whom?"
Doing good work and being known for it are two different things. Some of us embrace it, some get it, but don't do anything about it, and some completely reject the idea that self-marketing, the idea being somehow repugnant. But research and life experience are clear: being positively and distinctively known for your professional value among those with decision-making authority over your career gives you a competitive edge.
Both - doing good work AND being known for it - are important. Projecting a personal brand that is not substantiated by demonstrable results, capability, capital, relationships, or potential is not a sustainable strategy. The reverse is unfortunately more common: talent who is unknown, unnoticed, and unrecognized. It's bad for the employees who don't get the rewards they deserve, and it's bad for organizations as risk losing those overlooked talents.
A side note... chances are - they are women. Studies show that men engage in promoting their work more than women: more frequently, more publicly, and just more…
Why do you make yourself and your work more visible? Being "top of mind" increases your chances of being tapped on the shoulder when an opportunity provides. If you don't make your work visible while your colleagues do, your competitiveness decreases. How can you be considered for a project if the decision-makers don't know who you are or what you are good at? We don't want that for you. Instead, we recommend intentionally increasing your professional visibility, and the visibility of your work outputs. In doing so, you enhance your chances to be "top of mind". The more your name pops up for consideration, the more options you have. It's simple math.
Reflection moment #2
How do you get to be "top of mind" for those with decision power or knowledge around your desired career options?
Can you be successful if you don't actively promote yourself and your work? Maybe. There is always someone we know who did exactly the opposite to what science says and emerged triumphant. Are you willing to stake your career on that?
Change the frame = change the game
We care about your success. So, we must repeat the uncomfortable truth: Good work does not speak for itself. At best, not promoting yourself and your work will result in no potential career advantage. At worst, it will set you behind.
You may have a boss who always mentions your name and your achievements to the right people. A good boss puts you in front of important people to talk about your projects and ideas. But what if that's not your case? Then, getting "top of mind" is all on you.
Science shows that smart, deliberate, targeted personal branding works. It can be learned, honed, and monitored. Why wouldn't you get yourself some?
In our experience, many are uncomfortable with the idea of "tooting their own horn". In coaching conversations, they mention many reasons, such as "it's not how I was raised", "my project/idea is not interesting to talk about", "it's against the company's culture", or "this is not who I am". Such rationalizations are plausible, but unhelpful, because they limit positive action.
We see this as a reframing opportunity!
We invite you to think of personal branding (self-promotion, self-marketing, impression management – pick the term you are most comfortable with) as a regular career practice. Like having an up-to-date resume. Just like brushing teeth is a regular hygiene practice. You don't think twice about it...
Surely, you already do many things for your career edge. If you've practiced them over time, they feel normal to you. You probably won't have any issues asking your boss for a career conversation, collecting feedback on how you are doing, staying in regular contact with recruiters, or working on your development plan. Those are also proven practices to drive career progression. Personal branding is just one more.
P.S. Sergey still has the "what are you remembered for?" conversations with candidates (and internal talent) sometimes, but mostly as an ice breaker. In hiring, now he sticks to structured interview protocols that have much greater reliability and validity for hiring great candidates than cute but arbitrary questions :-)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of any affiliated organizations.