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What's Your Brand? Professional Branding and You

"When you think of people who have clear, cohesive and visible academic brands, usually the list that you could name off the top of your head includes a lot of men. We need to change that."


Dr. Paula Thompson

The concept of personal and professional branding is gaining prominence among higher education professionals. Traditional academics look for ways to differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other applicants vying for increasingly scarce tenure-track positions; one of the ways they can do so is to create a cohesive academic brand for themselves. But the same concepts can apply for higher education professionals looking to move up the administrative ranks. Dr. Paula Thompson, a career coach with Academic Coaching and Writing (ACW), has some advice for getting started with your professional brand.

Thompson has supported faculty development and career success as an assistant dean for faculty affairs at the University of Southern California and as program director for faculty development at Duke University School of Medicine. She specializes in coaching high-performing individuals as they strive toward achieving their next level of personal and professional success.

Getting started

Thompson addressed why women leaders, in particular, should consider developing a brand for themselves: “It is an opportunity to take stock of where you are in your career, but also to take a hard look at what is possibly holding you back.”

Academia can be generally hostile to the idea of branding, with its corporate roots and capitalistic implications. Branding, however, “is about taking control of how people see you,” explained Thompson.

“It isn't just about how you present yourself digitally, either,” she continued. “Branding is about presenting a coherent version of yourself both online and in face-to-face interactions.” It also isn't just about self-promotion, something that women in particular have been socialized to avoid, but about putting you in the driver's seat and “allowing you to tell the story you want to tell about yourself, your scholarship and your leadership,” asserted Thompson.

An academic brand articulates a clear and cohesive statement about you, which can include visual images, written products, online presence and personal interactions. A well-crafted brand sets you apart as a thought leader; it also highlights your contributions through both traditional media and online platforms. Branding can increase the visibility and impact of your work, grow and cultivate your academic support network and generate new career opportunities both within the academy and beyond.

Step by step

In your strategy, you will be combining traditional scholarship with public engagement in an effort to create a professional and consistent brand.

You should start by defining your brand. “What is your area of expertise or experience that makes you unique?” Thompson explains.

It is important not to down-sell or refuse credit when defining your brand. You might not always feel like a leader, particularly if the move is from a more traditional faculty role into an administrative position. However, own your accomplishments and your strengths in order to maintain a clear definition and vision for your brand.

The next step is to develop a plan. What are the strategies you are going to use to get your brand in front of the right people, both digitally and in on-the-ground interactions? These strategies need to be in sync and developed in tandem.

“Potential employers Google you, whether they are supposed to or not,” explained Thompson, “but they also talk to their colleagues. Your online and face-to-face interactions and brand must be consistent for these reasons.”

Some questions to consider:

  • Who are the people or where are the places within your own institution where you need to be seen and heard?
  • What are the conferences (locally, regionally, nationally, internationally) where you can most effectively network and promote your brand?
  • What more traditional media outlets are available where you can get your message to a wider audience?
  • Which social media platforms are your audience most engaged in?
Now that you know who your target audience is and where they congregate, it is important to begin engaging with them, while also making sure that there is consistent messaging in all communications and engagement you have with them.
  • Develop a shorter and longer biography that can be used in various situations and that figure prominently on your main web presence.
  • Put the address of your primary web presence in your email signature, on your business cards and in any brief biography that appears in conference programs or alongside by-lines.
  • Always link to work you have previously done, as this helps create a cohesive professional narrative and evolution toward your current professional goals.

Finally, once the plan has been enacted for a set period of time, take the time to evaluate what you have accomplished, adjust as necessary and then work to further amplify. These periodic check-ins are important to monitor how successful you have been in your efforts.

Make sure your plan includes a timeline with clearly defined goals at various points, in order to be able to accurately gauge how successful you have been in your efforts. If you haven't met your target, ask yourself if the target itself was unrealistic or if your strategy was ineffective.

These periodic check-ins can also lead you right back to the beginning: is my brand clearly defined? Does it accurately represent how I want to be seen? Always remember that it is ok to learn from your mistakes and to let go of what doesn't work. But also remember to be patient: “This kind of work takes time!” Thompson reminded us.

Some challenges

Thompson cautioned those who want to “jump the gun” on the steps in this process: “It is important that you complete one step before moving to the next, or else the efforts will be wasted on an inconsistent or incomplete brand.” The process is labor-intensive. Without a clear vision, proper planning and implementation strategies, the branding project can get side-tracked, ultimately leading to the project going unfinished.

One of the biggest challenges can be re-branding yourself in an environment that might not be open to change, or where you are already understood and defined in very set ways. This is where your online and social media efforts can be very empowering.

“Perhaps initially, you choose to focus your efforts entirely online,” Thompson explained, “but once you are successful at promoting your new brand online and have received positive feedback and reinforcement, it can inspire you to make similar changes in your interactions on your own campus.”

This work can be quite difficult and overwhelming, not to mention intimidating. “Women in particular are taught that we aren't supposed to boast or brag about our accomplishments, so this kind of work can represent a major transgression of our gender norms, both personally and professionally.” Having a coach like Thompson can help with not only walking through the steps of creating a brand, but also overcoming the mental hurdles that hold us back from even beginning the process.

One of the biggest benefits of going through this process is that it reveals how we might be seen and how much we have accomplished, and challenges us to create a cohesive narrative that brings the two together in empowering ways. Thompson concluded, “When you think of people who have clear, cohesive and visible academic brands, usually the list that you could name off the top of your head includes a lot of men. We need to change that.”

Reach Dr. Thompson at paula@theforesightcoach.com

Skallerup Bessette, Lee. (2014, April). What's Your Brand?: Professional Branding and You. Women in Higher Education, 23(4), 8-9.

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