Career Advice

Branding Advice for Graduates

14 Jun 2017  

It is graduation time, an exciting and festive part of the year. Here at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, students are trying on robes and getting ready for the commencement ceremonies later this week. Recently I provided some financial advice for graduates. This article is to offer advice on building a strong personal brand.

It is hard to overstate the importance of branding. You can think of your personal brand as your reputationthey are essentially the same thing. If you have a reputation for being a positive team player and doing great work, you will get promising assignments and new opportunities. If you make a mistake, your managers will give you the benefit of the doubt. Conversely, if you are known for being difficult to work with and careless, your bosses may not be so forgiving.

When some people talk about personal branding, they focus on networking, dressing well and being a thought leader. These are all good ideas. My advice is a bit different.

Here are five things to focus on as you start your business career.


Know the Numbers

The most important way to build a brand is simple: know the numbers. Senior executives tend to focus on the figures. What is the revenue? What is the market share?

As a new person, you should know the numbers and be able to talk about them with confidence. If you see a senior person, you should be ready to discuss the business. There are three steps in this process.

First, figure out what numbers matter. What do people look at? What do they discuss? If everyone talks about share of beverages, know share of beverages. If they report same-store sales, know same-store sales.

Second, be clear on where the numbers come from. What is the source? What is being measured? Are there limitations?

Third, keep up to date. When I was at Kraft Foods, I carried around and constantly updated a fact book, a binder full of charts. With this information, I could quickly find key numbers. I didn’t have to guess; I knew my figures were correct.


Execute Well

One problem with business school is that students are taught to think about the big issues. Should we enter the Indian market? How can we rework the global supply-chain? What is optimal global pricing structure?

The reality is that as a new employee, you probably won’t be working on any of these big issues. Instead, you will be organizing a meeting for fifteen regional sales managers, or redesigning a label, or writing an update on a new product.

My advice: embrace the challenge. If you are given a simple task, execute it perfectly. Don’t be frustrated at the somewhat trivial nature of the job. Be all over the details, and deliver something impeccable.

When the project goes well, you will build your brand. Over time, as people become comfortable with your skills, you will work on bigger projects and tackle more significant challenges.


Get a Promotion

People seem to switch jobs at an astonishing pace these days. I recently heard that people who join consulting firms will probably change jobs within eighteen months. This is remarkable.

You should resist the impulse to quickly move to the next position. If at all possible, get a promotion before moving on. It could be a very small step forward, perhaps just from assistant junior vice president to associate junior vice president, but it is a promotion nonetheless.

The reason is that you want to show success in your different jobs. If you leave a job without a promotion, future employers will look at your resume and wonder what happened. They will assume there was a problem. Perhaps you are tough to work with, perhaps you can’t do the numbers, or perhaps you are just hard to please. Whatever the case, it is a point of concern. A series of short stints with no forward progress is a major issue.

If you get promoted, your resume tells a different story. You were clearly successful; people only get a promotion if they were doing a good job. A resume with a series of promotions suggests a history of success.

So when in doubt, stick around. Careers are long. Spending an extra few months securing a promotion will pay dividends for many years.


Help People

You will need help over the course of your career. You’ll need an introduction, some advice, a tip about a new jobyou can’t do it alone.

So you should help people as much as you can. If someone asks you to help with a charity event, you should do it, and if a colleague invites you to be on a panel, go. Within reason, of courseyou have to get your work done and balance the different parts of your life.

Each time you help a colleague, though, you build the relationship. You generate a bit of social capital. This will all help you over time.


Go Easy on Social Media

It is tempting to spend your commutes on social media, checking in on friends and colleagues.

Don’t do this.

The problem is that social media provides a distorted view of life, as this terrific New York Times article explains.

On social media, people talk about their triumphs: the promotions, the glamorous travel and the exciting projects. They don’t talk about the frustrations, disappointments and struggles we all have.

I suspect it would be difficult to get fired up about your job as the assistant junior product manager of industrial ceramics for Indiana when your social media feed is full of posts about Hollywood photo shoots, brilliant innovations, IPOs and Super Bowl ads.

So limit the social media. Keep in touch with people, but spend more time talking and connecting, getting advice and sharing the ups and downs.


If you know the numbers, execute well, get a promotion, help people and limit the social media, you’ll be building a brand that will help you for many years.

Good luck and keep in touch.

1 Response

  1. Bob Schieffer says:

    Awesome advice Tim!
    I wish I had a professor like you when I graduated with my MBA in 1976.

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