Building your professional brand in a prestigious job

November 15, 2020

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Building your professional brand in a prestigious job

New research published in the Journal of Marketing examines how people who attain “prestigious” posts in high-profile organizations can manage their professional brands to promote career mobility.

Job insecurity is pervasive. There are no guarantees of continued employment, even for those who are extremely successful in their field. This research addresses two primary questions: (1) for individuals managing their professional brands, what tensions are triggered while working in a prestigious post? and (2) what practices are conducive to mitigating these tensions and enhancing professional brand equity in a way that allows for voluntary or forced career mobility?

The research team analyzed interviews with creative directors who have had one or more prestigious posts at top high fashion heritage brands, including Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Gucci, and Saint Laurent Paris. This context is well suited to the research questions given the frequent turnover among creative directors, which has been characterized by the media as akin to a game of musical chairs (the same happens among rainmaking partners in top law firms).

The researchers’ analysis highlights that having a prestigious post in contexts such as heritage fashion triggers two types of tensions for an individual trying to manage their professional brand: resource-related and identity-related. Resource-related tensions arise because prestigious posts both contribute resources (the business provides the opportunity and the means to be creative) and deplete resources critical to an individual’s professional brand (cost-cutting and the like). Identity-related tensions arise because prestigious jobs tend both to enhance a person’s professional brand’s identity and dilute that identity.

What the researchers say: “We identified several practices that can mitigate these tensions,” said the researchers. “One practice that is largely internally oriented consists of ‘transporting teams’ to support the professional brand.” This means “continuously surrounding oneself with trusted individuals who can help the professional brand perform effectively in a manner that is consistent over time and across organizational settings” (i.e. your team moves with you).

“A second practice that is both internally and externally oriented is ‘out-conforming to commercial logics.’” This means working to exceed expectations.

“A third mitigating practice is ‘selectively neglecting local normative expectations.’ Of course, professional brands will be contractually obliged to perform in specific ways that reflect the institutionalized expectations of the organizations for which they are working.” However, they say, there are likely to be more tacit expectations which they choose to neglect in order to protect or promote their professional brand.

A final mitigating practice involves ‘materializing the professional brand in the broader market.’ This means creating and publicly circulating “digital or material artefacts,” as they put it, that display the individual’s professional brand, but that are not sponsored by the organization that employs the individual. In other words the business wants to promote you as part of their brand, but unless you do a considerable amount of self-promotion you’re not going to get noticed by the people who may offer you the next job.

“The unique focus of this study leads to surfacing hitherto neglected factors that may fuel, if not disloyalty to an employer, at least some efforts to limit the extent to which the professional brand allows their identity to become conflated with that of the organization,” said the lead author.

She adds, “The paper sends a clear message to individuals trying to manage their professional brands while holding prestigious posts: strive to strike a balance between benefiting from the affiliation while at the same time maintaining your professional independence.” The paper also calls on organizations who employ professionals in prestigious posts to approach the relationship in a way that works to the mutual benefit of the employer and the employee. Organizations may wish to regard their relationships with key personnel who hold prestigious posts as akin to a co-branding alliance where both parties to the alliance benefit from it, even if the alliance is not permanent.

So, what? The advice given in this study is spot on, and very relevant not just to those who work in the industry studied. But there’s a more general point I want to make which may not be so immediately relevant to highly creative types such as Gucci designers but more apposite to the rest of us.

In most professions, the whole concept of a brand is undergoing change. In the future, for most professionals, “brand” is going to be more about relationship ability and what were dismissed as “soft skills” than about just knowledge and expertise.

Much of this is due to the development of ever-smarter AI and robotics. How can a surgeon, for example, promote a brand based on skill and expertise when a robot can be a much better surgeon (as recent studies have shown) and produce a more satisfactory outcome for most patients? It has to be based on something else. The ability to listen with empathy to the patient and explain in language they can understand what is about to happen to them. To share wisdom and to give them hope.

If your brand as a physician is primarily that you are a skilled diagnostician, what happens when computers can do the job much more accurately and much faster (as studies have shown they can now). In the future, your “brand” will depend on the relationship you form with your patients—your “soft” skills not just, or even primarily, your “medical” skills.

This point was originally made in 1999 in a famous study which showed that a physician’s cure rate depended very largely on the depth of the relationship they had with their patients. Not only that, even a medicine’s effectiveness was physician/patient relationship dependent.

What is the brand of a lawyer in the era of smart AI which, in many areas of law, can do much of what a lawyer traditionally did? And sometimes better. For example, AI can make a judgement on the basis of fact, a human can’t. The lawyer’s “brand” will increasingly depend on them being a consigliere in many non-legal aspects of a client’s life and business. A listener and a questioner, not an “expert.” Of course, most law firms recognize this already.

In circumstances like these, what does having a “brand” in the traditional sense mean? Our brand going forward will depend very much on several things many professionals used not to take much notice of: our wisdom, our empathy and our ability to find commonality and mutuality with our clients, our coworkers and, indeed, our fellow humans.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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