Career Advice

Advice for New MBAs: Build Your Personal Brand

1 Sep 2022  

This week I had the opportunity to speak to the incoming class of Kellogg MBAs about personal branding. It was a fun event; there is nothing like seeing 600+ young people embarking on a new life adventure.

I highlighted three things in my talk.

Your Personal Brand Matters

Brands are the associations linked to a name, mark, or symbol. A brand is everything that pops into your head when you see something familiar. Brands are powerful in many ways, but the most important dynamic is that brands shape our perceptions. A brand with positive associations adds value. Put the name Tiffany on a necklace and it is transformed. Add the Patek brand to a nice watch and it becomes an heirloom to pass down through the generations.

People are brands, too, and these associations are just as powerful. Someone with a great brand at a company, a great reputation, will benefit. They will get the best projects, opportunities to shine. They will get the promotions and big bonuses. When they make a mistake, people will forgive them, if anyone finds the mistake at all.

People with negative associations have a different experience. They don’t get the great opportunities. People scrutinize their work, and then find mistakes. It all becomes reinforcing. It can be impossible to break out of a negative brand cycle.

You Have a Blank Page

New MBA students are in a remarkable position; they have few associations. They start at Kellogg as a brand with low awareness and low meaning.

Over time – and more quickly than you might think or wish – they will create brand associations.

During the summer internship, they will have another opportunity, and then when they start as a full-time employee there is yet another fresh start.

So, it is a time of branding opportunity.

If you can create any sort of personal brand, what might that be?

Four Things

For new students, it is important to be thoughtful about branding. I suggested they do four things.

-Show Up for the Academics

Kellogg is a learning institution. Everyone is trying to learn and grow. So, prioritizing the academics will enhance your brand. If you prepare for class, participate in a positive way, and bring enthusiasm to your teams you will learn a lot but also enhance your brand with your colleagues.

-Focus

It is easy to get distracted and unfocused at a place like Kellogg. There are so many fascinating clubs and activities, an enthusiastic student will soon find themselves spread thin. FOMO, the fear of missing out, leads people to take on far too much. This doesn’t lead to a great brand.

I recommend people push back on this and focus on a few important things, and then do those things exceptionally well. It is a bit like Stephen Covey’s rocks and sand. Figure out your priorities, your rocks, and focus on them first. Then let the other things, the other activities, the sand, fill the available space.

-Be Thoughtful

Everything we do and say contributes to our brand. It is important to be thoughtful. What you say, what you do, what you wear: all these things have an impact.

Authenticity is important; you want to act in a way that reflects your background and your values. Inauthenticity does not lead to great branding.

At the same time, you want to highlight the positive parts of your brand. I believe we all have two sides: our best selves, and our messy, stressed selves. When you build your brand, you want to focus on the positives. I interviewed a nice fellow for a job back when I was at Kraft. During the conversation they volunteered that the really weren’t very good with numbers. This was an authentic and honest answer. It also didn’t enhance their brand or lead to a job offer.

Social media is a particularly delicate area. My advice: be thoughtful and careful when posting.

-Keep It Positive

Negativity doesn’t lead to great branding, so be positive. It is so tempting to talk about the problems and the issues. The coffee was cold. It is raining. The presentation ran long. Talking about these things doesn’t reflect well on your brand.

A good piece of branding advice: if you say positive things, you enhance your brand. When I say that Birju Shah is a fabulous instructor and I am delighted that he has joined the ranks of Kellogg’s marketing clinical professors (congratulations, by the way) I enhance his brand and my brand at the same time.

Here’s wishing the new students a terrific experience at Kellogg!


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