The Benefits of Knowing your Reputation

May 22, 2009

Reputations are built over time, easily damaged and difficult to mend. A great reputation yields an army of volunteers happy to speak glowingly on someone’s behalf. A poor reputation can sideline an executive forever. And while we may all long for sparkling reputations most of us have the odd performance smudge, strategic disagreement, business failure, cultural or job misalignment, or even misconduct that is mashed together with our victories to create the individuals we are. How do others see this amalgam that is you?

Many job-seeking executives try to contain or circumvent the whole issue of reputation. They spin their carefully scripted career tales, rationalize their employment comings and goings, and then direct potential employers to their coterie of references for corroboration. But many headhunters and employers discount hand-picked references and seek supplementary perspectives from unfiltered secondary sources. Some ignore the friends and family references altogether reasoning that they can find someone who knows someone who will give them the scoop on someone else. Executives often underestimate how this game of reputation-mining process works in the background to guide important hiring decisions. Even worse, many candidates go from first to worst because of it.

An individual’s reputation should align as closely as possible with their self-view. And the more self-aware the person the greater that likelihood. Individuals who can speak about their strengths and weaknesses, the business situations, jobs and companies in which they are most effective, and the corporate cultures and people with whom they work best are more likely to be viewed similarly on the outside. The same holds true for individuals who can acknowledge mistakes, lessons learned and can speak about how these will be applied going forward.

Many executives never venture down those roads of self-awareness. They take credit for all that was good in their previous jobs and deflect elsewhere all that was not. Job losses or business failures tend always to be attributable to market forces, lack of funding, product delays, dysfunctional boards of directors and on and on. While some executives execute this slight-of-hand trick, others raise cautionary flags sending potential employers to scramble to find alternative versions of the reality being presented to them.

A key link between self-awareness and reputation is feedback. Self-aware people tend to solicit feedback and use it to continually develop themselves. They know how they are viewed by others because they constantly ask. Soliciting feedback, as any senior executive will tell you, requires diligence as forthrightness decreases with as the power of the person soliciting it increases. It is absolutely critical however for personal development.

Unemployed executives should deliberately sample their reputations, both as protection against nasty surprises and as part of a normal process of taking stock. Such gauging can be done with limited awkwardness. For example, individuals can be asked for advice on the type of roles and companies they believe best suits the unemployed executive. The same applies for the types of situations they believe should be avoided. Feedback should be solicited carefully, but with a genuine desire to understand and learn. Each comment is a window how others see the unemployed executive. They should be taken seriously for these same people may well be asked by others and discretion can never be assumed.

Reputation matters. Executives should know what theirs is and ensure that it aligns with how they see themselves. Misalignment is food for thought and a wonderful starting point for self-improvement.