Branding advice for graduates

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By Professor Tim Calkins

Tomorrow more than 1,000 students will graduate from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. I’ve taught almost half of them. They will soon start at new jobs, branch out in different industries and begin careers in cities around the world.

It is an exciting moment, transitioning from one thing to the next. It is a time of endings and beginnings, and it is scary, too.

For the past two years, I’ve posted financial advice for graduates. You can read last year’s recommendations here.

This year I’m focusing on brand building. This is an important topic for new graduates. Your personal brand will have a huge impact on your career. If your brand stands for reliability, cooperation, analytical thinking and leadership, you will get good assignments. Senior managers will give you the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go perfectly. If people think you make mistakes and can’t be counted on, things won’t go well.

Here are four pieces of advice to build a strong brand.

Focus on the details

When you start in a new job, your brand is unformed. People don’t know you. There are few expectations.

Your first priority is to establish credibility. You want people to know that they can count on you to do a good job and that you are a strong player who is committed to excellence. To do this, you have to master the details.

As you start out, spend your time on the small things. You want your projects to be perfect. So double-check that you’ve reserved the conference room. Bring an extra copy of the presentation to the meeting. Look for typos.

Don’t assume others will execute. In my experience, some will and some won’t. I’m all for empowering people, but if your colleague didn’t make the copies, you will look bad. Follow the advice of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

Most importantly, check your numbers. Know where they came from and what they mean. Ask people to verify that you are using them correctly. There is no easier way to create a negative brand than to get the figures wrong.

Do fewer things well

Executing well takes time. This means that you should focus on doing a few things exceptionally well.

Ask your manager for priorities. Feel free to push back if the list starts to look long. Take on extra assignments such as the United Way campaign or the campus recruiting effort, but be selective. Leading the summer intern orientation program will only help your brand if you do it very well.

Doing a lot of things poorly is not a way to build a great personal brand.

Be nice to people

Ultimately, business is about people and relationships. We are social animals.

If people think that you care about them, that you are helpful and a good person, they will respond favorably. People usually return kindness with kindness. If people think you are grumpy or care only about yourself, they will be hesitant to help you.

In the long run, you’ll need people to help you, so focus on building good relationships. Help people. Don’t publicly criticize some else’s work. Ask about their kids. Pick up the trash.

Think about the job after the next job

One things is certain: your new job won’t be your last job. You will probably be working for 30 years or more, and you will have many different jobs. At least, I hope you will. Doing the same thing for 30 years could be a bit repetitive.

As you consider new assignments, either at your company or at other firms, you should look two steps ahead. The question isn’t whether the next job is a good one, the question is what comes after that. Does the new job position you for future growth? Will it open up new opportunities? Or is it more of the same? What will your resume look like? What will your brand become?

It is tough to predict what the future holds. Flexibility is key; you want to be able to do different types of work. You should make career moves with this in mind.

Don’t worry about the salary. What you make starting out will probably be very modest compared with your compensation as you move up the ranks. Live a simple life and save some money. Over time, your savings and salary will both grow.

Graduation is a big moment. It is a chance to look back at what you’ve become, and it is a chance to take your brand to a new level. Remember that in the long run, your brand will play a key part in your success.

Good luck.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg, where he teaches marketing strategy and biomedical marketing. He also leads Kellogg’s Super Bowl Ad Review. His professional blog can be found at timcalkins.com.

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