Should managers worry about what others think of them?

I’ve a confession to make. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessing about how I come across to other people. At times it’s felt like a return to adolescence, when I worried endlessly about whether I’d been noticed by those I most wanted to impress, or if in fact they were sniggering behind my back at my clumsy efforts to fit in. It’s not something I find natural or indeed very comfortable; it’s even felt as if I was at risk of undermining years of work building a self-esteem independent of anyone else’s approval.

Am I having yet another mid-life crisis? Am I undergoing therapy? No, I’m just reviewing my brand as a management coach.

There’s something about the idea of personal branding that sits uncomfortably with many of us, that is if it registers in our consciousness at all. After all, branding is something that organisations do, or rather is done to them; to do it to an individual seems to be treating them like some kind of commodity, and unless you’re a minor celebrity craving publicity it’s a vanity that should be avoided at all costs.

For many people, part of the transition out of adolescent insecurity is the ‘I am what I am’ phase, pushing your emerging adult personality into everyone’s face at every possible opportunity without worrying what they think of you. Fortunately, this is usually followed by the realisation that you can still be true to yourself while adjusting how you present yourself depending on the situation. For most of us, it doesn’t even take much conscious effort to alter which aspects of our personality we project depending on whether we’re with our friends down the pub or with elderly relatives.

Sometimes however, this realisation comes after some much needed feedback or a period of self-reflection. I remember working with a young graduate management trainee who insisted that she should be able to wear to work the short skirts and low necklines that were part of her normal style. After a few months, she recognised that because of her youth and inexperience she already had a tough enough job establishing her managerial credibility, without adding to her challenges by the way she dressed.

Personal branding isn’t about changing who you fundamentally are, it’s the art of presenting a clear consistent image that promotes the message you want to put across. It’s also about you taking control of how you’re perceived rather than leaving it to accident or other people who may not necessarily have your best interests at heart. On the BBC Radio 4 programme Today earlier this month, I heard a discussion about the latest cabinet reshuffle. Former Member of Parliament James Purnell gave the following piece of advice to the new cabinet members: ‘you need to create a caricature of yourself, or a frame through which the rest of Westminster can interpret what you are trying to do before the media or the opposition does’.

Although your personal brand may be an exaggerated, even slightly idealised version of who you are, the real challenge is to make sure your day-to-day behaviour lives up to the image as closely as possible, strengthening rather than undermining it. If this isn’t the case, it would be easy to dismiss branding as being all about cosmetic change, a clear case of putting lipstick on a pig. What branding is actually about is identifying and promoting your authentic self, celebrating your unique pigginess without the need for disguise.