Chris was starting to worry. For eight years, he’d been on the fast track at his large, multinational company. But suddenly, his career began to stall. “I ended up replacing a VP and didn’t get the promotion,” he told me. “Then I replaced another VP and didn’t get that promotion, either. I was going through performance reviews and everyone said ‘you exceed expectations,’ but then I was asked to report to another Senior Director. Alarm bells went off – what am I doing wrong? What am I missing?”
In a frank conversation with his boss, Chris finally learned the truth. His attitude at work came across as dour and unenthusiastic, and he wouldn’t advance until he changed that perception. I met Chris when I was researching my newly-released book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, and realized his experience – overcoming a negative perception and eventually achieving his goal of becoming a Vice President – had lessons for any professional who wants to change how they’re perceived by others.
Identify key behaviors. You can’t change everything about yourself. But you can pick out small, manageable behaviors and focus on them. With the help of a coach recommended by his boss, Chris developed a plan to show the energy his colleagues were looking for. It started with the basics – changing his voicemail message to sound more “excited and motivated.” In the hallway, he realized he had to stop saying “not too bad” when people asked about his day. “I had to start saying it’s great, it’s really good today.” He was skeptical at first. What good would it do to change his response to a banal greeting? He even made up a game. “I’d start going through the alphabet,” he said. “When people would say, ‘How’s it going?’ I’d start with ‘a’ and I’d say it’s awesome, then for ‘b,’ I’d say it was brilliant. I’d have the word in my head.”
Engage the feedback loop. Chris was skeptical at first – but he began to see results from his initial forays into positivity. “You get a different response from people,” he says. “Once I started being positive, they started being positive. I realized in the corridor, you have to make eye contact, you have start engaging people – and the people you want to engage might actually stop and talk to you.” It was a big difference from the past, when he would walk into work with his head down and go straight to his desk. That momentum made it easier for him to build relationships with senior executives that had previously seemed out of reach.
Showcase the new you. Encouraged by his progress, Chris set quarterly goals to reconnect with top leaders he’d interacted with in the past. Previously, he says, “I was inclined to leave contacts behind me, rather than send those emails or keep those connections.” Now, he devised ways to re-engage, thinking through ways he could offer value. And he often suggested lunch meetings because on his corporate campus, “people pay attention to who goes to lunch with whom.” Being seen with the right executives solidified his reputation as an up-and-comer.
A promotion didn’t come to Chris on a platter. It took nearly 2 ½ years of hard work, but by sticking to his reinvention plan, he eventually changed how he was perceived – and his colleagues recognized him as the leader he is.
Have you succeeded in reinventing yourself or changing how others perceive you? What strategies did you use?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 9, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.