The world of work is changing fast, and one important way to keep up is to build a "personal brand" for yourself and your career. A brand is, simply, an image in people's minds that makes something memorable and different from other similar things. When it comes to you, a personal brand is what people think of when they think of you.
A strong, positive personal brand can help you get the work you want, the salary you deserve, and the opportunities for training, growth, and development that you dream of. In short, a personal brand makes you more valuable to employers and opens doors.
How do you create a personal brand? First, you need to come up with a way to differentiate yourself. What sets you apart from the pack? Where do you shine?
Your point of differentiation can be professional, like a subject-matter expertise, or personal, for example, based on such factors as your personality, your background, or your location. Whatever point of differentiation you choose to focus on, it must be:
Valuable and relevant in the minds of your target audience, such as your employer, prospective employers, and colleagues
True and demonstrable; don't pick something you can't really deliver
Unique, or at least distinct from what everyone else has to offer
For example, if you have a special interest in telescopes, you could develop your personal brand around adaptive optics. If your company is active in this area (and this knowledge is thus valuable), if you get extra training in that subject (demonstrably true), and if few other engineers in your area are focused on this (unique), then you may have hit on the right niche for your brand.
You may think that being a generalist makes you more broadly valuable than focusing on a specialty. Paradoxically, the narrower the niche you choose, the more powerful a brand it will be, based on memorability and uniqueness.
Promoting your brand
Once you have selected your point of differentiation, it's time to promote it. In the engineering world, there are many ways to make your brand known. Begin with the tactic that feels most comfortable to you, and add more tactics over time.
Volunteer. Nominate yourself to serve on a committee or two for SPIE or other professional associations in your niche. Help out. Speak up. Take a leadership role.
Write. Submit article ideas to editors at your industry publications. If your company has a PR department, let the professionals there know you are willing to write for the industry trades. Andrew Lynch, a solutions engineer at Edmund Optics who has written articles for SPIE Professional (October 2009), Photonik, and NASA Tech Briefs, says "I have received lots of positive feedback from my writing within the industry. In addition, people at Edmund Optics know and appreciate my work."
Speak. If you have some new results or research to share, submit session proposals to conferences in your industry.
Be visible online. Raising your profile online is essential to building awareness about your personal brand. Create a detailed profile on LinkedIn, emphasizing your points of differentiation. Be sure to also clean up any indiscretions there may be in your old Facebook presence. Start a blog about your subject-matter expertise, or build your own website with your name as the domain.
Network. Do whatever you can to keep in touch with colleagues, employers, customers, competitors, past and present. Email and Twitter are useful tools for reaching out.
Practice your elevator speech
Craft your elevator speech. You need to have a quick and vivid answer to the inevitable question that comes up when meeting new people: "So, what do you do?" You want to be able to describe yourself--and your brand--in fewer than 50 words. So write up some descriptors and try them out in public. You'll get a good sense over time of what captures people's interest and what falls flat.
I've found that converting your elevator speech into a two-part story can help. The first part begins with the phrase, "You know how..." and sets up an interesting problem. The second part begins with "Well, I..." and explains how your unique point of differentiation delivers a solution to the problem. For example, when asked, "So, what do you do, anyway?" an optical engineer might say, "You know how doctors are looking for new ways to close wounds without sutures?"
The questioner nods.
"Well, I design laser systems that allow surgeons to bond cuts with practically no scarring."
To help you strategize about personal branding, I recommend you pick up The Potato Chip Difference by Michael A. Goodman, which shows you how to apply classic marketing techniques to building your career.
Don't worry that your personal brand could be static for the rest of your life. You can--and should--continue to refine your brand image and guide its evolution as your interests and those of your industry change over time. Determining a clear personal brand now will help your career grow and evolve.
Tactics to promote your brand
Looking for more advice about becoming a successful optics and photonics professional?
The Leadership Series is a collection of online and print articles for students and early career professionals. Articles in the series focus on leadership in the fi eld of optics and photonics, with tips and information about everything from entrepreneurship trends to trust in the workplace and volunteering.
Read more on our the Leadership Series page.
Ruth P. Stevens (www.ruthstevens.com) consults on customer acquisition and retention and teaches marketing at Columbia University Business School (NY) where she obtained her MBA. She is the author of Trade Show and Event Marketing and The DMA Lead Generation Handbook. She serves on the board of directors for Edmund Optics and is past chair of the DMA Business-to-Business Council and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York.