What is your gut reaction when you hear the term "personal branding"? Some years ago, my MBA students started asking if I could help them with personal branding. My initial response was to decline. I have always been passionate about building brands for products, services, and companies, but I found the idea of a personal brand somewhat alien. The students, though, were convinced that developing a personal brand would help their career development, so I sought out the experts. I came to realize I'd had a lot of misconceptions on the topic. Since then, I've become an advocate for personal branding because it allows each of us to be empowered to communicate the value we want to bring to the world. Here are a few key ideas that can help you get past the myths and build a personal brand that will really work for you.

Your personal brand is a combination of the associations, beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and expectations others have about you. Let's say you’re in a high-stakes situation—you're applying for a new job, seeking a raise, promoting your company to investors, or trying to engage a new client. Whether you achieve your goal will depend to some extent on your reputation—how others have perceived you in the past, how they perceive you in the present, and how they envision the person you will be in the future. So, if the idea of "developing your personal brand" seems too self-important, try thinking of it as "managing your reputation"— which is essentially what personal branding is all about. We all want to be well thought of in the minds of others who are important to our happiness and to the achievement of our goals.

We all have a personal brand, whether we like it or not. In and outside of work, people will have ideas about you. You can't completely control those ideas, but if you don't take the lead on the parts you CAN control, those ideas will be formed by what people think they know about you, perhaps based on stereotypes, on first impressions, or on what other people have said about you when you're not around. Why not try to ensure that those opinions are accurate and positive? In other words, if you don't do the work to manage your own personal brand, someone else will do it for you—and you may not like the results.

A strong personal brand grows out of your authentic self. It helps others see who you really are and the unique value you bring to the world. Some don't like the notion of a personal brand because they see self-promotion as trying to be someone they are not. It can be exhausting and counterproductive to play a role—to put on a costume or a mask at work and pretend to be someone you are not. But that’s not what personal branding is about. Instead, your goal is to help others understand the real you and the unique value you can deliver.

Developing your personal brand requires some honest self-reflection about your values and your purpose. Thinking strategically about who you are means defining your vision, purpose, and values, and reflecting on past actions and decisions. What has been a consistent theme in your actions? What is unique about you and your approach to the world? What is your purpose in life? How do you envision your future self? These may seem like very deep questions—because they are. Answering these questions will help you understand yourself in relation to the world and to craft the foundation of your personal brand.

Honest feedback is crucial. You need to understand how others really perceive you. Because our brand is made up of others’ perceptions, it makes sense to try to understand how others perceive us today. Let's say you have great financial acumen, and you are seeking a promotion into a job where this skill is an important qualification. But if people think of you more as a people person or a creative person, landing that role could be tough. Perhaps you have not had a chance to demonstrate financial skills in your current job, or you’re up against someone applying an incorrect stereotype—that women are not as good at math, for example. That is a personal branding challenge; you want the hiring manager to understand that the real you would be great in this job. It's worth saying again: Aligning your personal brand with what others value does not mean changing who you are or misrepresenting who you are. It means working proactively to help others gain a new and different understanding of your capabilities and the value you can deliver.

Building your personal brand doesn’t happen overnight—and it is a continuous process. It may take some time to change how others see you. And throughout your career, your brand is likely to evolve. You may be known for certain specialized skills in your 20s, while you later develop a reputation as a strong leader. The important thing is to be intentional and strategic about your approach. That will enable you to find the sweet spot where you can demonstrate your full value—so you can sign that client, land that job, secure that capital, or get the promotion or raise you deserve.

Dr. Jill J. Avery is a Senior Lecturer of Business Administration and C. Roland Christensen Distinguished Management Educator in the marketing unit at Harvard Business School. She is also faculty chair of the new Executive Education program Creating Brand Value, which features a segment on personal branding.

Learn More about Personal Branding:

HBR Ideacast: A Marketing Professor and a Matchmaker Talk Personal Branding

HBR Article: A New Approach to Building Your Personal Brand

Harvard After Hours Podcast: What's Your Personal Brand / Is Branding Worth It?

About the Author

Jill J. Avery is a Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and teaches in many of our Executive Education programs.