The economy and technological change have changed the job market, for information professions and other fields. These changes have affected what employers look for and value, what job hunters should expect, and the trajectory of individual careers. Even the way employers process applicants has changed.
While things may be improving economically, however slowly, some of the changes brought about by the state of the economy and technological innovation may be here to stay. More and more people are working in consulting or project or temp positions that are understood to be short term from the start. Without others who know you well and are willing to recommend or hire you, and a clear message of what you have to offer, it can be very difficult to sustain forward motion in your career.
Networking and building your reputation and “brand” (also called “personal brand”) are more important than ever, to continuing success as an information professional. You have to do more than just show up and do your job well from nine to five. If you are job hunting, you can be sure your competitors are doing more, some of them much more. Potential employers will check out your LinkedIn page. Those who may be thinking of contacting you with an opportunity will seek out those who know you to ask questions about your suitability. Recruiters will Google you.
What is your brand?
Reputation and brand are related concepts but are not exactly the same thing. Your reputation is what others think of you; it is their individual and collective opinions of you and your work, abilities and character. Your brand is how you present yourself. Ideally both are positive and strong and in harmony with each other, and both should be considered thoughtfully and attended to deliberately.
You create your reputation with every interaction with other professionals, whether intentionally or unintentionally, positively or negatively, face-to-face or online, and with what you do and with what you neglect to do. Each conversation is an opportunity to strengthen your reputation or damage it.
Regarding your “brand”, you want to be clear and specific when communicating what you have done and what you have to offer to a potential ally or recruiter or employer. Many information professionals have multiple skill sets. It is best to decide on one or two that you want most to be known for right now, and focus on and emphasize those. If you try to include everything (in your LinkedIn headline, for example) you will quickly run out of space, and worse, you’ll risk looking desperate or like a “jack of all trades, master of none”. The best tactic is to find a ‘niche’; something for which you have a specialized knowledge and aptitude and for which there is a demand, and promote yourself with that as your specialty . This niche can include what you do in your current job or can extend beyond it.
Building your brand
Your LinkedIn page is a logical place to start. Be sure to include the right keywords on your page so those you’d want to find you can do so easily. It is also beneficial to give (genuine) recommendations to others on LinkedIn and request them from those who know you well. LinkedIn is not your only option, though. You can also present and build your personal brand online via a portfolio, your own blog or website, by guest writing on the blogs of others, and/or by participating in discussions on LinkedIn and other professional sites and listservs.
Face-to-face interactions are important to your reputation too, especially as it will help others to feel that they really know you. Give careful thought to how you introduce yourself. When deciding on what to include in your “elevator speech”, ask yourself “How do I want to be remembered by this person?” If you are looking for work it is much better to introduce yourself with what you are doing now (besides looking for work) and what you are able to do, than by saying, “I got laid off a year and a half ago.” If you introduce yourself with only your current job title, you may miss out on opportunities because those you meet won’t be aware of other things you have to offer.
Some other suggestions for building both your reputation and brand are volunteering, freelancing, writing, and lecturing/public speaking. Service in library-related professional organizations offers a number of ways to get yourself known in a positive way to others in the field: you can serve as an officer in the organization, help to plan an event, write for a blog or newsletter, or work on a committee or task force. You can also present at local, regional, national or international conferences. These may involve a significant investment of time and effort but they can bring you big rewards down the road.
Aside from expertise you can offer related to your niche, common-sense characteristics and soft skills, or the lack of them, can make or break your reputation. Be reliable, punctual, flexible and pleasant to work with. Keep promises and meet deadlines routinely and over-deliver whenever you can. Make sure your requests are respectful and all favors large or small are followed by a “thank you”. Share your knowledge, advice, ideas and connections for the benefit of your network.
Staying on track
There are a few threats to your reputation that can be very difficult to recover from. You can expect dishonesty or scamming to be a deal-breaker every time. Those who become aware of your lies or attempts at manipulation will never forget them or trust you again, and word can spread quickly. Other forms of dishonesty, such as blaming others for your mistakes or taking credit for the ideas or accomplishments of others, can also lead to burned bridges.
Other behaviors, such as online arguments or attacks on others or publicly expressing negativity about the profession, can do damage that is both immediate and long-lasting. What you say online can remain there for a long time, to be found by anyone who cares to do a little research. Remember too, that anything you post publicly under your real full name can affect your professional reputation, even if it is on your own blog or Twitter account or even Facebook. Google yourself regularly, and as much as you can, control the information that is retrieved by a search.
It takes time to build a reputation and brand. It’s not enough just to say “I have done this, I can do this”; you have to have a track record of jobs in which you have acquired skills and experience, and people who know and trust you and are willing to vouch for you and recommend you. This is an ongoing career task and is never really finished.
Just as a company brands itself and its products, your successful reputation-building requires deliberate planning and action. Decide where you want to be in the future and how you are going to present yourself in order to get there. Create and cultivate your reputation and brand carefully and you’ll have a better chance of a successful job hunt and a strong career.
Ellen Mehling received her MSLIS from Long Island University and works as a librarian, instructor and writer in and around NYC. Her professional experience includes work in special, public, and academic libraries, as well as archives. She is Director of the Westchester Graduate Library School Program and Director of Internships for L.I.U.’s Palmer School and since 2009 has been METRO’s Job Bank Manager / Career Development Consultant. She teaches classes and workshops on job hunting, information literacy, researching, and other subjects at METRO’s Training Center and other venues within and outside NYC.
Photo courtesy of Victor1558 on Flickr.