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How to Build Your Brand While Still Getting Things Done

Many of us consciously or unconsciously align ourselves in one way or another to the belief that if we work diligently, we will succeed in business. As Andrew Carnegie put it classically in 1903:
Do not make riches, but usefulness, your first aim; and let your chief pride be that your daily occupation is in the line of progress and development; that your work, in whatever capacity it may be, is useful work, honestly conducted, and as such ennobling to your life. (How to Succeed in Life, by Andrew Carnegie)
Those alignments come in different flavors:

"The Naive"
Some of us walk through life wearing a philosophical button (or, more scary, a physical one) that says:
Silly fools!  If we write really high quality code, and there is no-one in senior management there to properly interpret our code review, what have we accomplished?  (Apparently there is a comedy skit by the Royal Canadian Air Farce where they ask the question "If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is there to hear it, where are they?" but I can't find a YouTube clip of it, so you will just have to imagine it for yourself.)

In fact, most of us notice eventually that "getting things done" does not directly translate into moving up the corporate ladder.  We are so busy pulling all-nighters to "fix the build" or "write the manual" or "solve the architectural problem" that we don't end up rubbing shoulders with the influential people who can vouch for us at promotion time.

 "The Cynical"
This comes in two forms:  people who get credit, and people who don't get credit and cry about it.  Some of us decide that since the straightest path to success is to get credit for things, we will make sure to get credit a lot.  So we will focus our energy on building our brand, and we will devote all waking hours, words, emails and deeds ensuring that as many things as possible are credited to us by the people who matter.  This can be a combination of exaggerations, fabrications, and appropriations of others' work, but overt distortions of fact should be limited, so that we don't get caught (very often).  Appearance is reality at bonus time!  So we shift gears.  Our new mantra is:
Meanwhile, others of us are not getting credit, and we are proud of it, except at annual review time.  How many nights have we spent sobbing into our beer with colleagues over how unfair life is, and how did that jerk get promoted, and "oh, she only manages up," and so on?  And then we move onto "I wouldn't want to be like that anyway," and we get distracted by something, and then another interesting problem comes up to solve, so we forget about it again until next year.  And it's a good thing, too, because our accomplishments are the collateral everyone is fighting to take credit for!   The story might end here, and it does with a lot of us in one cynical group or the other.

"The Phenomenon"
Some of us move past naive and also past cynical (to what you might call "Post-Cynical"), and ask the question not just sarcastically, but also in earnest:  is it possible to be successful without selling out?  If our passion is to do stuff, can we keep doing stuff, or do we have to spend all our time hanging out with important people connecting the dots that lead us to a lucrative career in consulting or an office with a window? Or at least a door?  Here we stop to ponder some people who seem to have it all, like Martin Fowler, Jim Highsmith, or Mary Poppendieck.  Those are people who do stuff and are also known for doing stuff.  They are real, and they are also famous.  Executives love them and so do disenfranchised smart people.  What does it take to be a genius who is also famous?
I don't actually know the answer to this.  If they tell you, let me know!  Meanwhile, let's power on.

"The Personal Brand Manager"
This is my strategy for the rest of us.  In real corporate trenches, we need to be aware of the choices we make with our time every day.  There are two parts to this.
1.  Don't be grandiose.  If you want to be famous, but you aren't, then figure out what you can do to make the most of what you do well.  I'm a big fan of this Steven R. Covey concept, the "Circle of Concern" and the "Circle of Influence."  Make sure you make a distinction in your mind each day between things you can do, and things you can't do.  Work on the ones under your control.  Do not focus on the things that are not under your control.  Work to build your influence.  Otherwise you will be angry all the time.

2.  Be wise in controlling the message as well as the results around your efforts.  Understand that for those of us who are not Fowler, Highsmith, or Poppendieck (and who knows, maybe for them too!), every action includes a measurable accomplishment of some kind and a story about it.  If you are mindful, you can decide and influence what happens and who gets credit, and the obvious answer isn't always for you to do both.
We should think about what story we want to see around the things we are making happen.  Those of us who are just average people galumphing along, should go ahead and make things happen, if that is our passion, but we should be putting effort into all three areas:
  • We should ensure that we do not get credit all the time.  Certainly, to some degree we do this so that people will know we know how to play the game, but we also do it because it builds good will on a solid foundation.  If we are consultants, we want our client to get credit for the stuff we are coaching them to do, and we are willing to accept their anxiety and anger around changes they are making.  We build our career by building their careers.  If we are corporate employees, we want to build up our staff and our colleagues by being quick to credit others and slow to credit ourselves.  And of course we want to credit our boss!
  • We should ensure that we do get credit some of the time.  Don't be the tree falling in the forest.  Nobody promotes a dead tree.  Make sure you know who needs to know what you are doing, and make sure they know about it.  You can even be a little Machiavellian about this:  know that when you send out a memo to your whole department praising your team, you are praising yourself.  But that's not a bad thing--it's one of those nice cases where it is a win for everyone.  If nobody knows what you're doing, you have no-one to blame but yourself.
  • We should ensure that we "manage up" sometimes, even when we don't have a specific accomplishment to brag about.  We need to be out in the world doing something besides just what our job calls for.  If we want to grow and have more influence, we need to understand that this type of networking will take time, and we need to take the time to do it.  We should not wait for the go-live or the big sale to set up meetings, to request a mentor, or to join a networking group for our fellow women, racial group, sexual orientation group, special technical interest group, or neighborhood volunteering group.  ("Former players of ASCII dungeons and dragons games, unite!")
Is that the same as "taking credit for things we didn't do"?  It doesn't have to be.  But if it is, it should be because we are relentless corporate go-getters who are willing to move ahead at any cost!  How's that for a rousing take-away?!

The point is that we have the responsibility to be our own advocate, and we need to understand what we want, and we need to work proactively to do things and to have whatever the right level of influence is, in order to keep doing things at the scale appropriate for us.  So go get it, guys!  Meanwhile me, I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to track down that stupid online Canadian comedy sketch.

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