Moments of disruption can create career opportunity and many senior executives are working flat out, believing that if they deliver extraordinary results during such an uncertain time, they will set themselves up for the top job of CEO. But what if you are slaying at work, ready to lead, but invisible to the rest of the world?
For the Almost CEO, taking strategic control of your reputation can help get you onto the short list and then make it easy for the hiring committee or board to picture you smoothly transitioning into the top job.
While some senior executives have access to PR team support and spokesperson responsibilities that help to build your professional reputation, there are key things that you can do yourself with zero budget. So here is my Zero-Budget Personal Reputation Plan.
1. Get your digital and social house in order.
Yes, you need a LinkedIn profile. It’s the first stop I make before meeting with someone I don’t know, and when reviewing resumés.
Connecting to your network on LinkedIn is just as important as filling in your background. Think about your network in manageable chunks. Start with your best friends and family. Add your current co-workers and clients. Then find colleagues from previous roles who stand out in your memory. Add high school and university friends that you’re still in touch with. Neighbours. Parents of your kids’ friends.
When I first joined LinkedIn, I only accepted connection requests from people I knew well enough to say something nice about. Over time, my view has changed as I focus on building new connections through the platform. I value seeing posts from people that I may not know well, and I hope they read mine.
Google yourself. Put yourself in the eyes of a prospective board search committee. Is there something to find? Does it reflect how you want to be seen, as a CEO candidate? Search results take time to improve, but LinkedIn profiles rank high, as do your other social accounts, so start there.
Whether it’s long form, like articles for LinkedIn or Medium, or short tweets, you have free channels entirely within your control. Tell people what matters to you. Share knowledge. Show people how you think and what you value.
3. Nurture your network.
When was the last time you met someone new? Have you texted someone lately just to check in and compare notes? Because the vast majority of roles are filled through networks rather than job postings, you need to be near the front of people’s mental rolodexes.
There are lots of ways to do this, but most require you to go outside of your comfort zone a bit, and/or make time.
- Volunteer for something that matters to you, ideally outside your close professional circle. Inevitably you will meet people who are very different from you, have entirely different networks, and yet share common interests and values.
- Start or join a conversation online. Offer help. Yes, Twitter can be a cesspool, and I generally avoid it. But I’ve met many new people on LinkedIn who are now “loose connections” and flagged some to other people as someone they might want to know.
- Drop an email to a loose connection already in your network that you have lost touch with. Most people love those emails. I try to send at least one text or email to someone I don’t want to lose touch with every day.
It’s much easier to ask for a warm introduction from someone that you’ve invested time in. You don’t want to be that person asking for a recommendation from someone who barely remembers you.
4. Put your hand up.
If you are actively looking for a new role, tell people. Introduce yourself to people that you think may be able to help you. Ask them to introduce you to two more people.
If you are a BIPOC candidate or a woman, there are also lists and organizations that you may want to talk to trying to improve diversity and make you more “findable.”
- Consider organizations that help find new board-ready candidates. Join the Black Professionals in Tech Network. Catalyst Women on Board helps identify women candidates to boards (for a fee). BIPOC Executive Search, created this summer, works with companies to recruit racialized candidates.
- Join Informed Opinions, a not-for-profit that provides reporters with a searchable database of women who are available to talk to the media. Reporters value this; they care about diverse sources. Media coverage ranks high in online search results and builds personal credibility. (It also gives you an opportunity for a touch point with your network when you’ve been included in an article looking smart.)
Underlying all of these tactics are two giant caveats. The first is this: there is good reason for LGBTQ executives, women, and BIPOC (for example) to not put their hand up for media interviews or raise their profile on social media. Every day we see those that do so suffer harassment and abuse, both online and in person. So I get it if you choose to just say no.
Second, you need to decide what you want to be known for. When people introduce you, what do you want them to say? In 2014, I wrote a piece advising women executives to consider carefully whether they want to be known as a Woman CEO, versus just a CEO.
I was perhaps naive enough then to think that this was completely your choice. But racialized executives are grappling with the same question today. Do you want to be known as a Black director, or a director with capital markets experience? An Indigenous CEO, or a mining CEO? Naturally you can be (or already are) both; identity is not something to be turned on or off, nor do most people have that privilege. After all, reputation is what other people think of you, not what you think about yourself. But you can proactively emphasize the aspects of your identity that are most important to you. Teach people how to think about you.
Start now. If you are looking to make the jump from Almost CEO to CEO in the next few years, remember that many jobs find the person rather than the other way around. You need to be findable. There are zero-cost ways to take control of your personal reputation that help you to be seen as the obvious candidate.