Your Professional Persona is Not Your Position, Seniority, Salary or Reputation.

13 May

In my early twenties, when I was just getting started in the professional work world, my concept of my professional identity was, quite simply, the position I held within the company that was kind enough to employ me. Who am I? I am an Associate with ABC, Inc. That, to me, was the long and short of my professional persona, my professional brand. 

Then, in my late twenties, as I was given greater responsibility and some nice salary increases at the company that was not only kind enough to keep me on but also apparently saw some value in my contribution, my sense of my professional persona broadened just a bit. My concept of myself as a professional was no longer that of an entry-level staff person with no redeeming skills and value beyond being a willing learner. I started defining my professional identity as someone with a limited set of industry-specific (hard) skills and a decent position and salary. At this stage, the equation in my head was, My Professional Persona = Position, Seniority, Industry-Specific Knowledge.

Fast-forward to my mid-thirties, and I began to see my professional persona in a whole new and much healthier light. Thanks to my own often-challenging efforts to self-reflect and rewire the always-critical-of-myself tape in my head, and some fabulous executive coaching, helpful feedback and advice from my bosses over the years, and input and support from friends and family, I came to understand that my professional identity/persona/brand is NOT my position, power, money or reputation.

My Professional Persona IS the way in which I shape, combine, apply and continually hone my:

  • Relationship, communication and listening skills;
  • Breadth of both industry and life knowledge;
  • Personal and professional experiences;
  • Personality traits and styles, behaviors, attitudes;
  • Emotional intelligence and ability to read people;
  • Professional values;
  • Professional missteps and the ways in which I have grown from them;
  • Understanding of my strengths and not-so-strong areas;
  • My professional achievements, to include ones I consider achievements as well as recognition I have received from others, and the extent to which I don’t them define my sense of my professional worth;
  • Constant efforts to be kinder and much less critical of myself;
  • Maintain reasonable expectations of others;
  • Desire to continue to work on and strengthen my professional persona;
  • Commitment to being authentic in my professional relationships; and
  • So much more that I couldn’t fit on this page and have yet to realize!

Just to be clear, I am not always confident, nor am I fully in touch with my Professional Brand. I have ‘off’ days just like we all do, and I aim to evolve a lot more. This whole Professional Persona thing is not a riddle that I have solved and crossed off my ‘to-do’ list. On the contrary, identifying and capitalizing on your professional persona is not a riddle at all. It is your unique, non-linear, never-static and never-ending path that is, at times, exhilarating, rewarding, burdensome, frustrating and everything in between.

My hope is that you have or are on your way to developing a strong sense of your professional self, and that it fuels you. If you currently define and attribute your professional worth to your position, salary and/or status, or just your industry-specific knowledge and skills, or in a similarly limited way, then this article is meant for you. If you don’t feel clear and/or confident about your professional persona and its value, then I hope I have encouraged you to tend to this critical part of yourself. You deserve and will be all the better for it.

Here are some takeaways from my ongoing journey to develop a fully actualized professional persona that I hope will be helpful to you:

  • There is no finish line. Just like our personal growth, our professional self-concept and brand should also be constantly evolving and embraced as a life-long endeavor.
  • Be patient with yourself. Developing or reestablishing a clear, confident sense of your Professional Persona takes time and hard work. Try your best to take pride in the fact that, by virtue of being human, you will always be a ‘work in progress’. 
  • Don’t bury and hide from your missteps at work. Embrace and learn from them. An inspiring article by Fast Company, called Failure Is The Only Option, If Success Is The End Goal, so aptly notes that “if learning happens through trial and error, then you need to try and, more importantly, you need to err”. The article further states that “real failure doesn’t come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from fear to take risks and from the inability to grow.”
  • Establish an ongoing support system of trusted peers who provide you with unbiased, non-judgmental feedback and advice, pep rallying and creative inspiration and expect the same from you. For so long, I was one of the millions who believe that to be a standout professional, to achieve my definition of professional success and be recognized as such by others, I had to figure it all out on my own. In my mind, turning to others for what was without a doubt a much-needed level of support, advice and creativity meant that I wasn’t a genuine professional; I was a fake because I needed ‘help’, another anchor besides just my own mind. Sound familiar? About a decade into my career, I finally realized that both gaining and giving encouragement, candid feedback and work ideas to a group of trusted peers is a sign of strength and essential to professional development and self-awareness. Harvard Business School Professor and former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, and Founder & CEO of the True North Groups Institute, Doug Baker, have been benefiting from their True North Group, which is the support system they created almost 4 decades ago.They describe their True North Group as“at various times a nurturer, a grounding rod, a truth teller, and a mirror. At other times, the group functions as a challenger or an inspirer. When people are wracked with self-doubts it helps build their courage and ability to cope.” While my support system is a little less formal, I am proud that I have one and hope to keep it forever.
  • Know your ‘anxiety trigger points’ and take a moment to acknowledge and tend to them when they occur. Like it or not, regardless of what a strong sense of our professional brand we develop, there will always be certain situations, types of personalities, environments, work projects, etc. that prompt a sudden jolt of anxiety without warning and can cause us to behave in ways that are not in keeping with the professional persona we have worked so hard to establish. Being in touch with what I refer to as our anxiety trigger points and pausing for a moment before taking action (out of anxiety) when they are activated without warning will be very helpful.
  • Know the types of interactions, quick work tasks, non-work-related activities, etc., that reinvigorate your ‘I’m competent, I’m great’ feeling and seek out those opportunities during even your busiest workdays. We all have those times when our internal pep-engine seizes up, and we lose sight of our competence and our confidence plummets. Identify the types of interactions, mindless (or not) work tasks or quick activities that restore your confidence and sense of competence. A former colleague runs at lunch, which makes her feel incredibly capable (and also provides that fabulous endorphin release). A friend of mine seeks out a colleague to see if she can help them with something. At the risk of losing all credibility with you, one of my favorite positive distractions is folding laundry (I work from home). It’s easy. It gives me a sense of order. It has a definitive start and end-point (which my work almost never does). It gives me immediate gratification.

What other advice would you like to offer?



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