my boss told me I won’t be considered for a promotion unless I get a “personal brand”

A reader writes:

I recently had my mid-year performance review, and my boss’s feedback was glowing until the end. She noted significant improvements since my first performance review a year ago and praised the number of performance benchmarks I’d met (more than anyone else of my organization’s 15 teapot coordinators).

However, at the end, she told me I would never be considered for a team lead or manager position until I changed my personal brand from “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” to something more specific, like being the go-to person for teapot spout questions. Aside from my own dislike of personal branding, I don’t understand why that’s not a great brand. She told me she spoke with a teapot director who agreed on this feedback.

How do I go about creating a brand if my work culture requires it? And how do I promote the brand I’ve chosen without feeling slimy when I’m an introvert who hates schmoozing? I can think of a few areas where I’m the go-to person that I could potentially turn into my brand, but I don’t know how to do so. I’ve tried discussing this with a few coworkers, but none of them have intentional brands.

Or is this just a sign that I just don’t fit the office culture and should start job hunting? She also told me I needed to focus on befriending a manager or director (with most of whom I already have friendly, collegial relationships), which makes it feel like she’s saying my personality is a poor fit to be successful here.

I hate, hate, hate the whole idea of “personal branding.” I think it’s cheesy and misapplied, and generally overlooks that “reputation” works just fine, if not better. (Except, of course, building a strong reputation takes much harder work over a longer period of time than what people generally recommend for “personal branding.” In fact, a commenter here once called personal branding “marketing the reputation you wish you had,” which I think is perfect.)

That said, as much as I would welcome the opportunity to slam personal branding, is it possible that what your manager is saying to you is less about branding and more about the idea that in order to move up in your company, you need to be known for something more specific than just doing solid work across the board?

I might be reading too much into the example she gave you, but it sounds to me like she’s saying that you need to get more specific — that you need to have a specialty and build your reputation around something more narrowly defined than just “generally awesome.”

I happen to like “generally awesome,” but your company may have reasons for wanting more narrow specialties.

I’d try thinking of it like that and take the branding lingo out of it altogether, and I think you’ll feel more comfortable with it.

If I’m wrong and your company really is all about cheesy branding and flash, then yes, it could be that it’s just not the right culture for you. But before you conclude that, I’d spend some time looking around at the people who have moved up in your company and what about them stands out. You could also talk with some of them for advice about this and see what they say. (You did mention that you talked with some coworkers, but it’s not clear to me if they’re peers or people above you; it’s the latter group who will be most helpful here.)

Last, your manager’s advice to befriend a manager or director doesn’t sound to me like a coded way of saying “your personality is a poor fit here.” It sounds like she’s either suggesting you find a mentor in the ranks above you, or that she’s saying you need to have close relationships above you in order to move up, which would mean promotions there are heavily political. That might be good advice for this workplace, or it might be that your manager is just off-base about what works in this company (she wouldn’t be the first manager to have weird ideas that weren’t actually reflective of the broader company). Seeking out advice from people above you in the company will be a good way to figure out which of those it is.

{ 122 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. BRR

    Because “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” isn’t a good enough brand? Why be good at all things when you can be good at one?

    On the possibility of befriending a manager to get a mentor, I heard some advice that you should have a mentor outside of your direct team so that their advice won’t be biased.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      They’re not talking about being good at one thing instead of being good at everything, they’re talking about being a true expert in something specific. They’re more or less talking about being the company-wide (or department wide) go-to person for a specific area.

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      1. 42

        That’s how I took it, too. Like, in my organization we have “product champions” (another phrase that makes me go blech), who act as the resource for process queries, etc. The OP’s manager just grossly mischaracterized it in an effort to sound trendy.

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      2. LBK

        I still think that’s establishing an unnecessary dichotomy and one that assumes the OP isn’t an expert in any of the areas she works in. I think the old “jack of all trades, master of none” idiom rarely holds true – usually people who are experts in their area are also just generally good at their jobs.

        Reply
    2. INTP

      I’m thinking that maybe all the positions for the Teapot Coordinators to grow into are more specialized, so that someone who is an excellent Teapot Coordinator might not be qualified for them without developing a particular skill. Ideally there would be a growth path for generalists too, though.

      Reply
    3. AdAgencyChick

      As I said on the thread Alison mentioned, I think positioning yourself to be seen in a *specific* way is very valuable and important, and I still believe that very much, whether you want to call that a “personal brand” or your reputation.

      I do think that “consistently delivers high quality work” may not be enough for a promotion. This blog discusses all the time that many people get promoted based on their ability to do their *current* job well, when in fact the next job title up requires that one be good at things that aren’t part of their current job (and that they aren’t good at). This may be what OP’s boss means by needing to be known beyond “does great work.”

      The higher you go up the food chain, the fewer open slots there are, and the more likely it is that a hiring manager is going to be looking for something specific. When I have a Teapot Copywriting Supervisor position to fill, I’m going to want someone who’s at least reasonably good at all the job requirements, but in some cases I’m going to need someone whose strong suit is speaking to difficult clients; in another case it might be that I need someone who is super organized and conscientious. So if I have two people on my team who are ripe for a promotion but only one slot open, I’m going to promote the one whose individual strengths match best with the needs of the slot, even if overall they are both great at their current job. (In practice, I’d probably try to find another opening at the company for the other person, because there’s enough demand for people at that level that I wouldn’t want her to walk — but this is what would guide my thinking if there were considerably more qualified candidates for promotions than budget/slots for promotions.)

      It is a truism in advertising that nobody can remember “BOB” (Bucket Of Benefits) about your product. The most memorable products take a specific position and stick with it. It’s not that you stop being all the other things you’re good at; it’s that, when you present yourself to others, you stress the thing you want to be known for.

      Reply
    4. Adam

      I feel like this is something I run into a lot. A lot of my coworkers would probably describe me as “generally awesome” but in a world where it feels like you have to specialize in something to have any sort of significant career growth these days those of us who are more jack-of-all-trades types feel like we tend to hit much lower ceilings on the upward climb, or at least I do.

      Reply
      1. Anise

        Definitely. It also seems like in the beginning of your career, people emphasize the importance of NOT just being good at one thing, especially in a precarious economy where you might not find a new job opening in whatever thing you previously specialized in.

        Reply
        1. Adam

          This is probably the biggest reason why I haven’t gone to grad school: I’m afraid I’d spend all those years and money on something I’d either grow to hate or would end up not being useful down the line anyways.

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      2. Sketchee

        For myself, I’m a graphic designer and can pretty much design most things. However, I’m the only one with a solid history of publishing experience. So I often do publishing projects. When I worked in publishing, I had a stronger point of view for a certain type of modern and nontraditional design. While working with older and more classically styled designers.

        One can be a generalist and have a clear idea about what skills you have that are different from others. A lot of the times, coworker’s personal interests or personality strengths are just as useful and memorable. I loved my coworkers who would have a certain type of charisma for a difficult clients. One lady had a hobby in illustration which led her to certain types of work. Another was just naturally more organized which placed her managing some tasks

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    5. BRR

      My post was definitely based on my own experience. Thinking of a couple people I know who deliver high quality work but that I can also approach with specialized questions.

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    6. Meg Murry

      Hope this isn’t considered language nitpicking, but I also wonder if when the boss is saying “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” if OP also needs to look at the “any project given” part and if the boss is saying in a roundabout way “you need to be more proactive”.

      I’ve had a few coworkers that were good at any work you assigned them, but they were always saying “what should I do next? Huh? What now?” or even worse were just kind of hanging out until someone specifically assigned them a project or task. It totally depends on the role, but in some places another way to move up is to look for your own projects or keep a running list of things you could do when there is downtime. Don’t just tackle them on your own without talking to your boss because there could be other important customer work waiting for you – but “When I finish with Project X if there is some down time I’d like to look at ABC if there isn’t something else in the queue”

      Many places I worked finding projects or places to improve and taking action on those items was part of what moved someone up from “worker bee” to “management potential”

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    7. KH

      I view it a little different.

      This ‘personal brand’ request is just a request for self-awareness. In a nutshell, what are you good at and what do you like to do? If I was your manager and had to describe you to my manager (or defend you in the event of impending staff reduction), what should I say? How do I defend your value?

      This self-awareness and ability to articulate value is also important for internal staffing/resource allocation. This is especially true in large organizations where staffing the right resource is a considerable challenge when the person who needs the resource might not know the right person, the right person’s manager, or even anyone who knows that person’s manager. Large companies may develop “expertise tracker” systems whereby employees (or their managers) input specifics about what they are good at and what they like to do.

      I think everyone would be more comfortable with the request and the feedback if they understood the rationale behind it.

      Reply
  2. badger_doc

    I think Alison’s advice is spot on. While it is great to be generally awesome at everything, I think that for some companies you have to pick something to own to be a manager or leader. For example, my company makes teapots, tea bags, tea leaves, grows the tea leaves and also has creative people to design new tea pots. These teams all work for the same company but generally work in silos because the disciplines are so different. We cannot promote someone who is great at everything (although presumably our VP would have good knowledge of all the groups). We want a manager for teapots who is good at all things teapots. We want a manager for the growers of tea leaves who knows a lot about growing conditions and botany. While it is good to have big picture knowledge of how all the groups fit/work together, in general, to be promoted through the ranks, you, by default, become good at one particular track. Not to say you can’t jump teams and learn a new trade, but in reality, it is easier when you have one area of expertise to help an entire team. I’ve gotten similar feedback to you but not labeled “branding”. We call them “subject matter experts” here. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Dan

      Yeah… in my department, I’m starting to become the department subject matter expert in data standards. Since it’s something we use on a daily basis, becoming in an expert in that isn’t a bad thing.

      There really is a difference between someone who is competent in an area, and someone who is an expert. My read from the OP is that their company is looking for her to become an expert in something.

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    2. OP

      Letter writer here. Badger_doc is right that teapot coordinators work in all areas, and promotion opportunities are mostly specializing into one of those areas. The exception to this is my boss’s job, teapot manager, which is the promotion I would most like were she to leave at some point.

      I currently like all the pieces of my job and do well at them, so I think I’m also a little scared to commit to being the go to person for tea leaf questions, because what if the next promotion opportunity is in tea bags?

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      1. neverjaunty

        But do you want to specialize either in leaves or bags? That’s really more important than whether there will be a slot you can squeeze into. It isn’t good in the long run to decide “I will specialize in teapot handles so I can get promoted to Senior Teapot Handle Coordinator”, and then find out too late that actually you don’t care about handles much and miss working on lids.

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      2. Meg Murry

        Part of that is the risk you take. I don’t think you necessarily need to say “from now on I’m only doing tea leaf projects, no tea bag projects for me!” but you can volunteer for tea leaf projects when they come up. But I think you mentioned below that the company is growing. So maybe the promotion that comes up in 6 months is in tea bags and you don’t get that, but another will come up in a year for tea leaves – that’s fine, this is long term thinking over the course of your career, not short term.

        It can’t hurt to look at business needs and how you compare to your coworkers though – if 3 of your current coworkers have Masters Degrees in Tea Leaves or worked at Tea Leaves R Us for 10 years, you probably want to go the Tea Bag route, unless you hate tea bags and have dreamed of working in tea leaves your whole life.

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      3. Chriama

        Well, waiting around and hoping your boss leaves so you can take her position is as much of a long shot as picking a specialty and then finding out that there are no promotion opportunities in that for a while. I think this is something that you can go back to your boss on — you like all aspects of your job, but you want to be promoted. Which areas does she think are the most valuable to focus on. Or you can look at other organizations and see which specialties they like to hire at higher levels.

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      4. Meg

        If you really do enjoy all aspects of your job equally, look at the area where you think your company could improve the most, and specialize in that. If you can get good improvements in your specialty, you may be able to make your own promotion opportunities by identifying and defining the need for a new position, rather than waiting for someone else to leave. (This is what I did at my job!)

        Reply
  3. Snarkus Aurelius

    Ugh with the personal branding.  You’re not Coca-Cola or Nike; you’re a human being.

    It sounds like your boss was trying to tell you something meaningful but she ended up sounding like Michael Scott after he read an article in a business magazine while he was waiting in a client’s reception area.  (I’m thinking of the episode about China.)

    If you can ignore the nonsense about personal branding, your boss may have a point.  Mastering a specific talent may be the way to get ahead in your company, BUT I’d advise talking to several other people about this first.  Regardless of what you hear, it probably wouldn’t hurt you to be known for one or two (no more than that) specific skills, but it feels like splitting hairs.

    “I would never be considered for a team lead or manager position until I changed my personal brand from “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” to something more specific, like being the go-to person for teapot spout questions.”

    Why not both?  That was more a question for your boss than you, but I fail to see how this could be a zero sum game.  

    Reply
    1. Dan

      The boss didn’t say it, but I suspect the boss may be looking for both. As a manager, you need to know your team’s thing inside and out, but also how your team interacts in the bigger picture. A manager who is clueless about the big picture will have limited effectiveness.

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      1. MK

        I agree. I would think that “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” is a must-have in anyone considered for promotion; in all probability, that manager isn’t saying it’s not the way to go, just that it isn’t enough on its own.

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    2. OP

      Yeah, I think hearing the words “personal brand” made me shut down a bit and not want to take it seriously, but the meaning that commenters and Alison have pulled out from it is actually very helpful.

      Reply
  4. INTP

    I agree with AAM in that I really, really hope this is just the boss’ silly way of saying that you need to be more specialized within a niche to be promoted at this company. That, in some ways, makes sense – maybe there is not currently a path within the company to grow in Teapot Coordination, so even if you are the best Teapot Coordinator possible, you need to become eligible for a position in a more specialized area like Spout Planning or Teapot Information System Administration to be promoted. Ideally the company would have growth paths for generalists as well as specialists, but if they don’t and you’re interested in staying, I think you should take that advice and look for opportunities to develop a particular skill.

    If you really do have to do a lot of glitzy “personal branding” in addition to developing this side skill, then I don’t really know what to say, other than 1) whoever is guiding this company culture needs to stop reading “how to succeed in the modern workforce” articles by people who aren’t in the modern workforce and 2) they’re going to wind up with an absolute powder keg of egos if they only retain employees who brand themselves.

    Reply
    1. Stranger than fiction

      I wonder what her boss’ personal brand is? And I also wonder if her boss feels threatened by her and is trying to throw up roadblocks?

      Reply
      1. Meg Murry

        I don’t know about boss being threatened, but I once was given really good advice which was to get good at something your boss isn’t (or doesn’t like) because then all the X gets delegated to you and you become known for it – whereas if you are good at the same things as your boss or the things she likes she won’t delegate those tasks to you. Don’t do it for something you hate, but if you enjoy a subject, volunteer to learn more about it.

        It happened on accident, but in my case at some of my best jobs/job fits I became the department expert on something that was my boss’s boss’s specialty – which meant I got lots of mentoring and grooming from that person. For instance, at one job the big boss was really into Excel, which my immediate boss could use but wasn’t a super wiz at and didn’t particularly like – so me being able to have Excel do some tricks caught the big boss’s eye and he taught me more. Same with another sub-specialty of my field.

        Not that this “boss’s boss” thing has worked for me in a case where the companies are small and not very hierarchical (3 different companies now) – in my giant Fortune 500 company it made more sense to seek out mentors who were parallel to my boss but in a different specialty because the boss’s boss had too many people under her to pay much attention to us peons.

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    2. Ama

      Yeah, it does sound like a clumsier version of advice my boss gave to me when she asked me to think about what my ultimate career goals are. I have a hybrid position that encompasses two related areas but most Director/C-level positions in our area would require me to choose to specialize in one of them — with the third option of aiming for a CEO/Executive Director position, in which case I should try to acquire some knowledge of areas I don’t currently work in at all.

      Reply
  5. Mike C.

    I’m just impressed with how much of a positive and useful spin Alison used to polish up something as utterly facile as “personal branding”.

    Reply
    1. Anna

      I would like to sit down with the marketing guru who came up with that bullshit and give them a stern talking-to. One day people will look back at the “personal brand” career advice and laugh about it like we laugh about “gumption.”

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    2. Not So NewReader

      Alison the Translator. Sometimes it seems like Alison is translating something a person says into English, okay, real English. I like how Alison’s advice is something OP can actually use, if OP chooses. I also like how Alison did not tell OP, “ugh, give up on these people!”
      OP, it could be that you enjoy your eclectic pool of knowledge and you would rather stay put or maybe you would prefer to move forward in your career. And that is the underlying issue here.
      At least the boss told you where things are at. It’s too bad that she was not more specific about what types of specialties would ensure your employment over the longer term. What does the company need the most of? Where do they see themselves in the future and what type so specialties will be useful in that plan? A good mentor might be able to help with this.

      Reply
      1. Liza

        She’s a BusinessSpeak-to-English translator! (And also a font of the kinds of common sense that aren’t common enough.)

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      2. OP

        I’ve tried to talk with her before about what future needs or open positions could look like, and she basically said that the organization doesn’t know what it needs until it needs it. We’ve grown in size a lot over the last two years, which I’m sure is part of that. However, Not So NewReader is exactly right that I’m a hesitant to pick a brand among multiple things I like and am good at when I don’t know how to do so strategically.

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          1. Chriama

            I think the idea is that the company doesn’t know it needs a high-level position in a specific subject until they know they need it. So OP being good at everything but fantastic at none means that if they realize they need a master teapot polisher and OP is only known for really good general maintenance skills she might get passed over for someone who’s amazing at polishing but only decent at the rest of maintenance.

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            1. Lee Ann

              If they’re that disorganized, it’s equally likely that just as you become the expert in polishing, they’ll decide they want the rough look instead.

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        1. Eliza Jane

          I feel you on this. People keep giving me the same advice, to become the go-to person on something, but none of my projects or tasks require real depth in anything — they all require generalists who are good at everything. So it feels like I’m being told to pick something at random and spend a huge amount of my personal time learning it really, really well in the hopes that it might be of value to my company.

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        2. Chriama

          Am I right in having the impression that the promotion you’re talking about wouldn’t be from something like junior teapot analyst to senior teapot analyst, but going from teapot shape analyst to leading your own team of teapot tipping analysts? In other words, it isn’t a specific position you’re working towards but rather a specific career level. In those cases promotion opportunities can arise when the company decides they need a tipping analyst and puts out a job application, or you can do such great work and deliver such great results that they decide they want you to continue your tipping analysis and lead a team to do more in-depth research.

          Therefore I think your manager was saying more of ‘you need to create your own promotion opportunity.’ And when it comes to creating your own promotion opportunities, relationships are really important. So that’s probably why she wanted you to ‘befriend’ some higher-ups (although I do think ‘befriend’ is not accurate for a workplace relationship and she probably meant something like a relationship that’s more than just the day-to-day work you may do with them).

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          1. LD

            This makes a lot of sense. And to add to it, if it works in your environment, make a point of talking to the other senior managers or directors and ask them how they got to the position they are in. Interview them about their experiences, interests, training, education, etc., and see if any of their discussion sparks an interest or ideas you can use. Pick their brains and see what you find out that could help you choose a direction. Good luck!

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    3. S.I. Newhouse

      I agree… my initial instinct was to comment that this is probably the same type of company that has endless meetings featuring lots of use of words like “paradigm” and that the OP should run… but Alison made some terrific points.

      If Alison’s thought that it was just a ham-handed way of telling the OP that she needed to specialize in something ends up being the case — then it sure would have been nice if the boss, in the midst of delivering her gobbledeegook, could have told the OP what she should think of specializing *in*, other than general awesomeness.

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    4. neverjaunty

      Yes, I also sometimes make huh-squint at ‘but isn’t it possible that the words coming out of that person’s mouth actually meant something totally different and actually reasonable’? I mean, I guess it’s possible, just like it’s possible that I might win the next Powerball jackpot, because anything’s possible – the real question is whether it’s likely and plausible.

      And while only the OP knows for sure if this is a case of boss delivering a good message in a dumb package, it’s a concern when people are told to always assume best intentions or to recast something troublesome in a positive light. That way lies “I ignored all the red flags”.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I get that, but I don’t think it totally applies here. “Personal branding” is already often so vague and weird when people use it that you pretty much always have to examine what the heck they’re actually saying. So, in doing that here because having to figure it out is basically unavoidable with that terminology, this seems like the most likely way to understand it.

        Reply
        1. neverjaunty

          Sure, and I think you quite rightly pointed out the ‘on the other hand’ scenario – and maybe this is lawyerly precision about language, but I see “isn’t it possible that….” as different from “depending on your boss and workplace, she could also have been trying to convey that…..” because the former is so often abused to hunt for explanations, no matter how attenuated or unlikely, that would favor a positive and conflict-avoidant spin.

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          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Ah, I see. I guess I feel like I have a track record of not contorting myself to find the conflict-avoidant spin and that it should be taken in that context, but it’s a fair point.

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          2. hbc

            I don’t think it’s necessarily bad in this case to search for a conflict-avoidant spin. If the OP generally likes the job and wants to move up, she can put in some effort on the best-case scenario and see how that pans out. And if it turns out that the turd is a turd, that the manager is saying they value razzledazzle over performance, then she’s out about a month of job searching. The downside to testing the best spin is pretty small, and the upside could be huge.

            Reply
            1. neverjaunty

              She could be out a lot more than a month of job searching – like a damaged reputation (and thus references) at work, and lost opportunities in the meantime. I’m not in any way saying that the OP should default to the most negative view; she should default to the most likely view, given her understanding and experience with her own workplace that we don’t have.

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              1. Sketchee

                Reminds me of a book I just read, “Decisive”. It’s method for testing out decisions was to widen your options, reality test assumptions, add distance before decision, and prepare to be wrong. That last one is key. No matter what the OP decides, there’s the possibility for all of those consequences. It’s a matter of coming up with a plan to find out what’s happening which Allison’s suggestions provide.

                Of course, she can both do some job searching or preparing for a job search and looking at opportunities while continuing to build her career at her current job. It’s not really an either/or scenario =)

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  6. LQ

    Is it possible that this all sort of means that you don’t stand out enough to the more senior leadership?

    As in to be consider for a team lead or manager position when your name is brought up in conversation no one has to remind them who you are. Right now it’s just “OP The one who is good at stuff.” but “Jake who is awesome at teapot handles.” or “Suzy who rocks spouts.” are more recognizable and it is easier to get them promoted because they stand out in people’s minds?

    I could be totally off base, but the combo of “personal branding” and being more friendly with the higher ups makes me wonder a bit if the people with the power just don’t know who you are enough. If no one is saying “I need OP on this project because they are a whiz with lids.” then that might be a part of it.

    Reply
    1. L McD

      That’s how I took it. Boss was trying to say “you need to distinguish yourself to get noticed,” just worded it in the most jargon-y way possible

      Reply
    2. plain_jane

      I have an employee who is generally fairly good at what he does and really really wants to get promoted. But the argument for promotion he gives is that he works hard and is always lending a hand when other people need help. It’s a fine brand to have, but it doesn’t speak to the things we look for in the people one level up (helping out other people on specific easily passed off tasks is about staying junior). For one level up, it matters more how you interact with clients, and quality (not just accuracy) of what you’re delivering.

      The OP’s manager is talking about the shift from co-ordinator to team lead or manager. So I think that before promoting, they want to see the OP is already perceived as something of a leader by the other co-ordinators. And it’s easiest to do that if they are the go-to person for spouts and people will come to talk to you about those if they are having trouble.

      “I’m happy to say we’re promoting Jim. As you know, Jim has done a lot with our main client on updating the graphics on their teapots, and some of those ideas are already being used with these two other clients too.”
      “I’m happy to say that we’re promoting Sally. As those of you who have been going to Sally for advice when you’re having trouble with the glaze department, Sally is great at finding the right people to speak with when the timeline starts to slip.”

      E.g. instead of “any project given”, you could start angling for the types of projects you like, and show that you’re especially good at them. When you are praised for good work on the other type of project say that you used a skill you learned in the type of project you like. Similar ideas for a step in the project – do you do that step better than everyone else? Have you done documentation for it? Have you offered to show a newbie?

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    3. Adam

      There is some truth to this. Your coworkers may know how great and helpful you are since they work with you every day, but if the higher ups don’t know (especially in larger companies) your achievements may not be properly appreciated by those who actually have the power to help you in your career. If you want to move up sometimes simply doing an awesome job isn’t enough by itself if nobody knows about it, which is something I’m begrudgingly learning as I’m very much not an office social type.

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      1. OP

        This feels really true to my situation. My boss has referred to me before as “her teapot systems person,” which seems to me like a brand, so maybe what’s lacking is the public knowledge and self promotion around it.

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        1. Meg Murry

          And I think along with the public knowledge and self promotion your boss may be saying that you need a political ally above your boss (or possibly parallel to her) to help push/pull you to future promotions. That’s how it has worked at other larger companies I’ve worked at – certain movers and shakers took people under their wings, and they all rose together. What that also meant was that if you didn’t have a “champion” in upper management (or your champion wasn’t good at promoting you or if your champion left the company or otherwise fell down in the eyes of upper management) you weren’t going to be pushed into the higher ranks.

          OP, do you like the idea of being the “systems person”? If so, run with it, tell your boss you like those projects and ask for more of them. Is there an upper management person that is also into systems? Find out so you can start to get on their radar.

          Reply
    4. Ultraviolet

      This take on the boss’s advice sounds pretty plausible and helpful to me. If OP does really well at anything they’re assigned, then they’re certainly good to have around. But if OP is an expert at some particular niche, then sometimes they will be necessary to have around–or at least, they’ll be sorely missed when not there.

      Reply
  7. Anlyn

    Sounds to me like your manager wants you to become an SME–Subject Matter Expert. SME’s are exactly what they sound like—they have expertise in their particular area. In my company we call it being a “blank guru”, where blank is anything from teapot design to teapot materials to spout inspection to…you get the idea. Being awesome in general is great, but it’s a foundation. Now how can you build on it?

    Reply
  8. F.

    I have been out of the large corporate world for over nine years, so I may be behind the times. If I understand correctly, the OP is being asked to become a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in order to be promoted to management. Where I worked (financial services), they often tried to promote SMEs to management when they had topped out of their particular pay grade, but the results were generally predictably disastrous. Being a SME did not automatically qualify them to manage people, not that there weren’t a few who pulled it off. Managing people also took away greatly from the amount of time they were available to use their subject matter expertise. It was often lamented that there needed to be a way to continue to reward SMEs for jobs very well done without seemingly wasting their talents in management.

    Reply
    1. Libervermis

      I worked for someone like this once, who knew everything there was to know about the historical site we were running but couldn’t do anything with people to save his life. He’d come up next to you, look off into the distance and remark “the tents by the river need to be taken down” and then wander off, which was your cue to go take down the tents. But the structure of the place was that to move up at all you had to become a manager, and while he was a nice guy who did his best, that was very much not his skill set.

      Reply
    2. periwinkle

      My employer has a separate track for technical stars – they are recognized as top SMEs but not forced into managerial roles to gain that recognition. Unfortunately it’s not really an option for non-engineers so the Peter Principle is alive and well in other organizational functions

      Reply
    1. Jane Gloriana Villanueva

      You could parlay this preparedness to confront the elements into “Always Ready” and “Aware of the Wider World”!

      Reply
    2. ThursdaysGeek

      Now I want to find out my personal brand at work! I suspect it is “weird person who doesn’t know anything about current culture.”

      Reply
  9. MP

    “Personal branding” is very big in the consulting world because projects are generally not won by delivering excellent work (because everyone is expected to do that), they are won by being known as the very best at something specific. In that way, I don’t consider it some sleazy marketing gimmick but a legitimate way to differentiate yourself in a crowded market for professional services.

    Reply
      1. Anon for this comment

        In my experience, the difference is that personal branding lets you label yourself and puts you in a box. So instead of being John D. who delivers excellent work and is known for creating Access databases among other things, you are just John D., Access guru. And you will build Access databases for the rest of your career.

        Reply
          1. Anon for this comment

            It’s funny but true. I’m new to consulting and one of the first things I was told was if there was anything that I didn’t enjoy doing, but could do extremely well, don’t let anyone know about it. If that skill becomes your personal brand, that is all you will ever be asked to do.

            Reply
            1. Izzy

              Yep. I once created a Survey Monkey survey as a favor for someone whose work I supported. because I was a research person and surveys are research, you know? Next thing I know, I am “the Survey Monkey guru” getting calls from people all over the organization. Survey Monkey is designed to be extremely user friendly, so any person who can read instructions (I realize this is not a universal skill!) can use it. Survey Monkey does not require a guru! It’s not writing code for statistical analysis software, which is what I really did. A lot of my time, that could have been used on challenging work that required my expertise, got wasted instead on Survey Monkey. One more reason I’m glad to be out of there.

              Reply
            2. Sketchee

              Same in the design world. Don’t show clients work you don’t like and only include work that you’d do again in your portfolio. Because that’s all they’ll want you to do the second you touch it.

              I did some web work at a previous company and ended up doing ended web maintenance. The higher ups wanted it to make it my full job and I just flat out decided not to do it anymore. My boss wanted me to stick with my strength as a designer anyway

              Reply
    1. Anna

      But it doesn’t make you stand out if a) everyone else is doing it and b) it doesn’t actually say anything about why you’re a standout. Especially if it’s some sort of title you’re giving yourself. I can easily say I’m an Outreach Guru, but if I don’t have the data to back that up, I’m exactly like every bottle of shampoo out there that can tell you they’re the best, but don’t have to back it up with any proof.

      Reply
    2. LBK

      So if you’re legitimately good at everything you do, do you just have to arbitrarily choose your favorite skill and market that one the most? I guess I’m not understanding the intention here. I’ve never done consultant hiring before but I’d have to imagine I’d want one who would be able to cover a wide array of responsibilities rather than just one area so that I don’t have to hire a new person every time I need a different type of work done.

      Reply
  10. CADMonkey007

    It’s not so much about being the resident encyclopedia of teapot spouts, but focusing your efforts in a way that enables you to contribute something unique to the company that raises the overall standard. If you want to focus on teapot spouts, maybe over time you develop a new spout that saves material and ultimately more profitable for the company.

    Reply
  11. Sharkey

    Use of the phrase “personal branding” aside, you’ve gotten good reviews and feedback, you’ve established your reputation as someone who “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” and your boss is seeing you as someone worth investing in by trying to guide you to a path where you can be successful.

    I don’t disagree at all with Alison’s advice about making sure that your manager’s understanding is accurate and getting feedback from others. It may be that you’re not a good cultural fit, but it may be just that you heard the horrid phrase “personal branding” and that colored things. Essentially your manager said to get a mentor and to develop a particular area of expertise in order for you to get ahead. That sounds fantastic to me, unless the one use of an extra jargon-y term is supported in other ways.

    Reply
  12. Chriama

    So I think people are getting thrown off by the ‘personal branding’ thing — I get that it’s an annoying phrase, but the manager’s description of what she wants the OP to develop is pretty clear. Have any of you heard the phrase ‘jack of all trades, master of none’? It’s a real risk that OP may never get promoted because every time there’s a spot she’s #2 in the required skills. Being the overall best doesn’t in teapot maintenance matter if the job wants the #1 best in teapot polishing. Basically, having a solid reputation in all areas of work is step #1. Step #2 is to become a subject-matter expert in something valuable.

    And developing relationships with higher-ups is important too. People tend to recognize good work more when they already know the person. When you have solid relationships, it moves your reputation from “yeah, I hear about OP’s achievements pretty often” to “hey, there’s that amazing OP accomplishing something awesome again!”. Basically, it’s not enough to be cordial with them — you want them to know you and like you, so that everything you do is a validation of their initial impression of you.

    Anyway, I don’t think this means shmoozing. Basically you should do 2 things:

    1) figure out what skills are valuable at higher levels in your company and work on getting known for them. This may mean certifications, or taking on more projects of a specific type, or giving presentations. Build your reputation around these skills in a public way (I think this is where ‘branding’ becomes a popular phrase to use. It’s not just about you knowing you have the skills, but making sure to display them strategically so that the right people recognize that you have them as well. Quibbling over the word ‘branding’ is just semantics.)

    2) build more intentional relationships with the people above you. I think you can ask your boss for suggestions here, but like I said before you want your achievements to be validations of the impression of you they have in their head, rather than a series of accolades that are noted and then forgotten about. Basically, I get the impression that right now most of those relationships are for when you’re working on something that directly involves them, and you need to get to a place where you have a general relationship with them that extends outside your immediate area of work.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      I’m pretty sure all of us have heard that aphorism. That’s why it’s very strange that OP’s boss didn’t, and instead used a buzzphrase (“personal brand”) that has all kinds of other, unfortunate connotations.

      Reply
      1. Chriama

        I think the issue with a lot of business concepts (personal brand, pain letter) is that someone comes up with a great way to describe something in a way that people understand. Then as it gets communicated and paraphrased, the original meaning can get a little lost. To me, personal branding means developing a reputation for doing good work. I don’t think ‘marketing the reputation you wish you had’ is at all accurate. The ‘doing good work’ part is a given, marketing is often be forgotten, especially by women who are socialized to not toot their own horns.

        ‘Brand’ is a concrete concept that people understand. Companies intentionally develop brands, focus marketing around the attributes they want that brand to convey, and develop products that fit in with the brand’s theme. So telling someone to develop a personal brand is saying “think about your work: what skills do you have? What do you want people to know you’re good at? Now, what can you do so people perceive you the way you want to be perceived?” Those activities include taking on certain projects, finding ways to broadcast your accomplishments (e.g. when a major project finishes, sending a message to everyone who worked on it *plus the higher-ups who supported it* about the results), and developing relationships with people. None of that is contrary to building a good repuation — it just takes a nebulous concept like ‘have a good reputation’ and puts it in a framework that is easy to take action on – look at how companies will create a product and promote certain attributes, then apply the same kind of strategies where the product is ‘you’ in the professional sense.

        I don’t get hating on the concept of personal brand. Just because something is misinterpreted doesn’t mean the original concept doesn’t have value, and if you are able to understand the original concept then acting like it’s ridiculous just because it became a buzzword is honestly pretty pretentious. It takes arguing over semantics to a whole new level.

        Reply
        1. Mike C.

          Or they just pull someone out of the recesses of their backsides, pretend it’s useful and promote the hell out of it to sound smart when they’re actually delivering nothing of real value.

          Reply
          1. Chriama

            I explicitly stated why I thought the ‘personal brand’ concept has value — it takes something that can be hard to define like ‘have a good reputation’ and puts it in a framework that many people are already familiar with. Just because a bunch of bloggers and freelancers for Forbes oversimplified it to the point of uselessness doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. And I think getting fixated on the phrase instead of trying to understand the meaning is disingenious.

            If ‘building a reputation’ works for you, then use it. For people starting out in their careers with not a lot of professional experience but plenty of exposure to corporate branding, personal branding can be a great framework to understand the steps to take to build a good professional reputation. I just don’t get why we have to insist the concept is trendy, buzzwordy bs.

            Reply
            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              I think part of the problem is that it often gets translated as “Design a personal logo! Put it on your business cards!”

              Plus, the whole “trying to market yourself as something you aren’t quite yet” thing that I quoted from that commenter.

              Reply
              1. Chriama

                I attribute the logo and business card garbage to the aforementioned bloggers and Forbes columnists I mentioned above.

                The thing that bothers me about interpreting it as “trying to market yourself as something you aren’t quite yet” is that we tell people to fake it until they make it all the time. Reputation is a social construct, and quite often you are what people perceive you to be. To me the doing good work is a given — the ‘branding’ part of it is intentionally working to make people *know* the good work you do.

                I just think it’s a shame that in our haste to throw out the bad advice (yeah, logos aren’t necessary or useful) written by people trying so hard to be original that they take a good idea and extrapolate to ridiculous lengths, we’re dismissing the underlying idea without recognizing that it has some very strong good points. Sure, it doesn’t need to be called ‘personal branding’ and sure, the idea of building a good reputation has been around since humans first formed communities. But it’s a neat spin on an existing concept and can be useful when used appropriately.

                Reply
        2. neverjaunty

          You have an interesting definition of the term “pretentious”. I’m not finding it a convincing argument for your claim that personal branding is a valuable concept and therefore we shouldn’t criticize its overuse as a business concept.

          Reply
    2. Stranger than fiction

      I don’t think she was clear at all I think she might as well have said “when the student is ready the master will appear”. “You’re excused grasshopper I have my next meeting.”
      She could have been more specific, both in noting specifics on her review for upper management to see and directly with her “remember X project and how you revamped the ____? That may be something you could move towards taking ownership of. If you’re interested you should set up a meeting with so and so to discuss”. But I’m coming from a place where it’s very hierarchical and you’re not just gonna chum up to upper management, it’d be weird.

      Reply
      1. Chriama

        The boss told her to “change my personal brand from “consistently delivers high quality work on any project given” to something more specific, like being the go-to person for teapot spout questions.”

        So the manager said personal brand instead of saying “you’re good at a lot of things, but you need to develop a reputation as an SME in a specific area”. I think getting hung up on the phrase ‘personal brand’ instead of listening to what the manager actually said indicates difficulty communicating on the OP’s part rather than the manager’s. Seriously, become known for a specific subject is the important part here, and the manager said that pretty clearly. I get that it’s trendy to look down on the ‘personal branding’ buzzword but lots of management positions include responsibilites related to strategic relationships.

        I think the manager could have suggested some more areas for the OP to focus on, but she apparently suggested at least one and nothing prevented the OP from asking for more examples.

        Bottom line: if the phrasing confused you, that’s fine. Alison did a pretty good job of explaining it in a different way and the advice is still the same. But unless the manager was telling her to design a personal logo and get custom business cards then I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with the advice she gave, even if she used a passé buzzword to do it.

        Reply
        1. Chriama

          To add — according to the original post the boss told OP to “change”. To me that makes it sound like the boss was explicitly talking about OP’s professional reputation and didn’t expect ther to do anything gimmicky to build a personal brand. The fact that she used that phrase instead of just saying “reputation” is apparently a great sticking point for people.

          Reply
  13. Anna the Accounting Student

    Did anyone else make the mental jump from “generally awesome” to “don’t forget to be awesome”?

    Reply
  14. Who Watches the Watcher's?

    This is a bit off topic but it brings to my mind the question, what about those of us who don’t care about climbing the corporate ladder?

    For me personally, I just want to do my work well, be acknowledged for it occasionally, and go home. I have no interest in managing others or whether or not I get the corner office. I could care less. How do you communicate that to your manager in a positive way? Like, I love my company and job and I know you think I’d be a good candidate for X management/promotion but I really don’t want it.

    I’ve managed people before. I don’t care do it again.

    Reply
    1. KimmieSue

      I’m so with you here!!!! I managed teams for years. Now, I’m independent and while self-employed, certainly considered at an individual contributor level. I am very happy that my ladder climbing days are over. No more silly performance reviews, doling out weak raises to rock star workers because that is how the compensation reward system works, quarterly budget forecasts and re-forecasts, silly corporate politics, crazy travel schedules, blah, blah, blah.

      While I love my job, it has been difficult at times in the past to convince some people that I really don’t want to lead teams anymore. I’m happy working hard, being productive AND shutting it down at the end of the day. No losing sleep for me anymore. Many managers and potential managers have a hard time accepting this philosophy. They will equate lack of corporate ambition and achievement to lack of drive or laziness.

      All I can really do is work hard, get consistent results and keep up the mantra, “thanks but I’m pretty happy with my current tea pot making”.

      Reply
      1. Who Watches the Watcher's?

        I totally get it. Especially the others not getting it or just thinking I’m lazy. Like I have ambitions, they just don’t happen to be corporate ambitions. I don’t get that sense of fulfillment at work, never have.

        So my question is truly, how do you communicate that to your manager and it be a positive conversation? All I ever get is those odd stares and loads of the ole “but you used to do X or Y and you handled it so well.”

        Maybe the OP has ambitions to ladder climb, but what if she doesn’t? How does she go back to her manager after getting that feedback and communicating that, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m just fine right here.”

        Reply
        1. animaniactoo

          For you: “I appreciate your thinking of me. Unfortunately I found that while it was something I did well, it wasn’t something I liked doing and am not looking to do again. I’m really happy to be doing something that I do well AND like doing, as I am now.”

          For OP “I appreciate your comments and thinking about me and where I might go in the future, but I enjoy the variety of projects I get in the role that I am in now and I don’t think I would like having to focus on just one area.” (and potentially, if true: “If there’s an opportunity for more responsibility with the same range of projects, I’d be interested in looking at that.”)

          Reply
        2. Windchime

          Funny you should say this. I got my annual self-evaluation the other day, and one of the questions is if I want to look at joining the management track. I’m in my mid-50’s; if I were interested in management, I’d have probably started doing it before now. I just want to keep getting better and better at my job, making more money and doing higher-level stuff. If I become a manager, it becomes all about policing peoples’ time cards and doing reviews and attending countless meetings. No, thanks.

          Reply
  15. hbc

    If you really are all-around awesome, it probably won’t take so much to nudge you into the SME/Brand/Go-To for any topic. Just think of some sub-section of the work that you’re pretty good at and that you don’t automatically think “I’d go to Specific Coworker with this issue,” and bam, you’ve got a brand. You might even already be the expert on something and not considered labeling it that way because it feels awkward and unnecessary.

    But it is kind of necessary. (I mean, I hate Personal Branding, but there’s a kernel of a reason that it hasn’t died. Like the way “pro-active” became an overused buzzword but also conveyed something important.) You haven’t naturally become seen as a leader of anything, so people don’t have reason to believe you’ll be a good leader. Take ownership of a subject, and people will be saying your name more often and seeing you in charge of a topic, and it’ll make it easier for them to imagine you in charge of a project or a budget or a team.

    Reply
    1. Bwmn

      I agree with this.

      I would also add that I wonder if the advice was to avoid being perceived as a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Where I work there is a young admin who ended up helping out on a number of extra projects. At first she was getting her hands on all these new tasks and getting a lot of praise for being helpful – but it feels as though a lot of the office attitude has switched and she’s perceived as not being particularly skilled and her broad understanding of a number of things isn’t perceived as valuable as being super awesome in 1 or 2 things.

      Unintentionally, some other admins have been more or less “borrowed” by a single department where they’ve gained the reputation as “the receptionist who also rocks the database” and then ultimately been folded in to those departments (and left the front desk). I don’t think admin 1 is any more or less capable, but she got spread so thin in a way that ultimately hasn’t helped her overall reputation.

      Reply
  16. animaniactoo

    Fwiw, it may not even be so much specializing in a specific field of teapots as much as HOW you do the work.

    My “brand” for want of a better word is the either PC “Detail Oriented” or the Non-PC “Pickiest !itch Alive” title that I am just fine with claiming. With a side dollop of being The Encyclopedia* and YO!, Dictionary!

    So pretty much whatever you give me to do, it is known that I will do it in a very organized manner, that I know enough to figure out what I don’t know and learn it, and so on.

    I am functionally the team lead in my department while not being officially titled so. My official job is supposed to be straight design work/management of licenses I’m assigned to, with a smattering of product development, but I’m also the go-to for creating our templates to work off of for packaging and product (I.e. Even if somebody else does one now, it gets run by me for sign-off that it’s done right), being able to find archived info, suggesting new organization areas when what we have isn’t working for us, IT was up here earlier today trying to convince me to go man a desk downstairs and turn my middling IT knowledge into a lot, and being on tap when my boss wants a second opinion on how to word something diplomatically – or spell diplomatically. Lately, I also serve as the person who gets asked to review/proof things when a critical opinion is needed.

    Of course, I also talk too much and that’s part of my “brand” too, but I get forgiven because of all the rest of it…

    *Except for geography. I suck at geography.

    Reply
  17. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    This sounds like good coaching, inarticulately given.

    “Build a brand” = What do you want to be known for at work? Not simply what you’re good at, but where do you want to go? Say you’re currently a Teapot Design Coordinator. If you want to be a Teapot Design team manager, seek out projects that give you experience leading teams. If you want to be a Spout Designer, seek out experience more focused on the design process. Etc.

    “Befriend a manager” = Get a mentor, and/or cultivate a “champion” – someone who will champion your interests in the company (bring up your name when a new role is being filled, invite you to join project teams that get you good exposure, talk you up to the CEO, etc.).

    Reply
  18. Macedon

    ‘Personal branding’. I’m getting flashes to the self-important Linkedin blurbs some people plaster on their profiles. They’re not just A with X years of experience of handling Y, Z and W, they are high-performing results-oriented experts at X with a passion for Y and ambitions of Z.

    Reply
  19. Eliza Jane

    Your manager’s advice suggests to me that you want to have an area where if people have questions, they think of you. “Gosh, we’re stuck on a really weird melting consistency problem — better call Jane, she’s the melting expert,” or “Wow, this project is going to require meticulous time-recording — Brent is great at that, we should talk to him about heading it up.”

    In other words, it’s less about what people think of when they think of you (reliable, smart, awesome problem-solver, whatever) and more about what situations or needs make them think of you.

    Reply
  20. stevenz

    I’m a bit confused. Maybe this was said somewhere in the 94 other comments, so I beg your forgiveness if that’s the case. It seems to me, though, that in order to become a more specialised expert, your boss has to give you the opportunity. In your current job you apparently don’t have the latitude to move into things that might fit her idea of, ugh, branding. Or, do you have that latitude per the company culture and just not availing yourself of it? Do you want to become a tannins expert? Do you want a promotion? Or would you rather leverage your awesomeness (ugh again) in this company into a better job elsewhere?

    Reply
    1. Stranger than fiction

      Yes you just put your finger on what I was trying to say. I’m used to cultures where that’s the case- your manager has to advocate for you and/or guide this sort of thing, not just say “ok go out there and get some recognition. Up to you how”. But apparently that’s not the case in all companies/industries.

      Reply
  21. KayBee

    I read this as the manager I artfully telling the OP that she needs to be seen as more than an individual contributor if she wants to be promoted. Her current brand – consistently delivers high quality work on any project given – is about her ability to meet her own goals well. What her manager wants is consistent performance that demonstrates a contribution to the team meeting its goals. She’s looking for leadership. So it’s not about having a specialty – although that makes it easier to demonstrate a broader contribution. It’s about leadership.

    Reply
  22. voyager1

    OP,
    Find what all your peers suck at, and become the expert of it.

    Oh and then you probably won’t get promoted because you will be seen only as someone who can do that role.

    Honsestly I would have asked the manager for something specific. Sounds like to me she isn’t much of a
    manger but one of those who thinks they know how to manage because they read a book or two.

    I never trust anyone in management who says, do this and your promotable. Seen people get burned too many times.

    Reply
  23. James

    Can you even trademark your own personal brand? (rofl)

    Is this really what management has come to in 2016 – personal brands, synergy, blah blah blah.

    It may mean that you are “too valuable” to promote or that your boss has no input into who does/does not get promoted.

    It may also be about fit as well (as has been suggested) and you may need to look elsewhere.

    Reply

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