By Randy Hain

Have you ever had a problem with your personal brand at work? Here is a true and somewhat genericized story (and a very common tale) I am sharing with permission. I was talking to a senior leader not long ago about struggles he was having with a lingering personal brand issue in a company he joined about a year ago. He had gone through a very stressful period last year with difficult personal challenges, a heavy travel schedule, long work hours and a chaotic environment in his company that was going through a significant reorganization. He shared, with some embarrassment, that he had been occasionally curt and ill-tempered with his team and peers during the worst two months of this period and had little interest or room on his calendar for investing in business relationships or developing his people during this time. I have known this leader for over a decade and the behavior he described was very uncharacteristic for him. He has always been an empathetic and patient leader, easily accessible, with a passion for fostering good relationships and helping his work colleagues thrive. I would describe this as a blip in an otherwise successful career.

Eventually, the personal challenges he faced significantly changed for the better, his travel became less burdensome and the schedule more manageable. The company’s reorganization was completed and things began to return to normal…or so he thought. During his year-end review, his boss told him he heard there were problems with his personal brand. He shared that there was significant “talk” in the organization that the leader was not fully engaged, not available to his people or peers and had been verbally abusive to a few of them. His boss shared that some people assumed he was looking for another job. The leader owned his behavior during this stressful period, but told his boss the issues being shared had become exaggerated and a little blown out of proportion. He shared that he had apologized to his team and peers after the difficult time, but recognized he obviously did not do enough as people were still frustrated and discussing it amongst themselves. He felt he had returned over the last few months to being the type of leader he had always been, but committed to his boss that he would take the conversation to heart, own and address necessary changes and work on repairing his brand. In addition to the frustration with his own struggles last year and subsequent uncharacteristic behavior, the leader shared with me that he was hurt that nobody on his team or peers had approached him 1:1 with this candid feedback or shared their lingering concerns.

Knowing I am an executive coach, he asked for my counsel on what he should do. He also wanted my advice on ensuring it never happened again. This is typically the perfect situation to partner with an executive coach and go through a robust 360 interview process, do assessment testing and develop a specific development plan to help navigate a way forward. Because of his company’s current financial state, they were not able to make this financial investment in him. The advice I share in the rest of this post is a combination of approaches I encouraged this leader to take over our breakfast meeting, but also advice for all of us. I would suggest, at times, we may be the leader in this story and struggle with some sort of personal brand issue. We also may be, at times, the colleagues around this leader who miss an opportunity to give candid feedback, make incorrect assumptions, fail to ask questions and learn the “why” behind behaviors, contribute to gossip and miss opportunities to help a colleague going through a difficult time.

Advice for this leader (and anyone who has dealt with a similar challenge)

As he and I reflected on the roots of his brand issue, I pointed out the obvious that he had been under enormous stress on the personal and business fronts. Managing stress well at every level of your career is critical because if neglected, prolonged stress can often bring out behaviors that are the opposite of our normal behaviors and we may not even be aware we are doing it. He acknowledged that he saw the signs, but did very little to proactively manage his stress and felt that he was just trying to survive. What are steps he could have taken then and also adopt for the future?

  • Don’t suffer in silence. I gently pointed out that he should have had the courage to confide in his boss that he needed help and ask for a little less travel, grace around his personal issues and accountability from his leader if there were any concerns about how he was showing up and engaging with others. He has a good relationship with his boss and will not hesitate to do this in the future.
  • Manage stress through exercise, prayer, meditation or whatever works for you. He has always been very fit, but neglected his old exercise routines and never thought to seek help through prayer or any other means during the height of his stress.
  • Seek help. Unchecked stress can be a killer with severe negative impacts to your brain and body. Sometimes you may need the advice of your physician or the guiding hand of a professional therapist/counselor to help you navigate through periods of high stress.

We discussed three other approaches that would have been very helpful during and after this period of difficulty:

  • Be vulnerable. He is like many leaders I know who are uncomfortable with being vulnerable. As we discussed, what would have happened if he had shared with trusted peers and team members a little of what he was facing at home and work? Discernment and good judgement are important. He didn’t need to share everything, but letting people know he would be grateful for their patience, help and grace until things settled down in his life would have very likely created an environment of understanding and helped him avoid some of the brand issues which emerged.
  • Provide psychological safety and consistently ask for specific candid feedback. Did his colleagues feel safe giving him candid feedback? Why the lingering brand issues? What was keeping people from coming directly to him with their thoughts and concerns? In my professional experience, the fear of giving candid feedback at work is pervasive. One helpful approach is to give others permission to be candid with you. We also discussed the need for him to always provide psychological safety when asking for candid feedback from his colleagues, especially more junior members on the team. They need to know there will be no repercussions for speaking with candor. Also, seeking candid feedback has to be more than simply asking “Is everything ok?” We should be specific when we ask for feedback. Examples might look like: “What are two or three things you would like to see me do differently in how I lead the team?” “Are you getting what you need from me as a colleague or a leader? What are a few areas where I can do more and improve?” “I recognize I have not been myself the last few months and I sincerely apologize. What are some specific behaviors of mine you have observed of late you think I can improve?” The bottom line is people need to feel safe speaking up and they need to be asked questions which will generate specific responses you can use, not the usual generic answers. Helpful tip: Don’t be defensive and always be grateful for the feedback!
  • Cultivate accountability partners. Who can we count on to tell us the truth? Who will pull us aside when we get off track and help us correct course? Mistakenly, this leader looked back assuming that someone should have stepped up and held him accountable for his behavior, but nobody did. Even his boss waited until the year-end review to give feedback. This may speak to the surface nature of his relationships in this company he has worked at for less than a year or lack of vulnerability because others may have felt he didn’t need or want their help. Accountability partner relationships need to be intentionally cultivated and treasured. We all need at least one trusted person who always has permission to kick us in the rear end if we need it.

Advice for the rest of us

Similar to how we used to dissect the characters in a story during our college literature classes, let’s imagine we are the team members around this leader with the damaged brand. I hope we can agree that the leader must own his behavior, but should things have gone on as long as they did? Did he need to wait until his year-end review to be challenged by his boss and learn there were lingering issues with his brand? While he has plenty to think about regarding lessons learned and how he can avoid this problem in the future, we might consider for ourselves if we have contributed (or are contributing) to issues like this in our workplaces in an unhealthy way.

Below are five key behaviors that we all might consider reflecting on and adopting in order to positively help our colleagues who may be going through similar brand challenges:

  • Avoid assumptions. How often do we find ourselves making assumptions about our colleagues? We observe a behavior or hear a comment and think we have a person pegged…that we know everything about them. Assumptions are dangerous as they can often be the catalyst for derailing somebody’s career and poor business decisions.
  • Implement the “No Gossip Rule”. Let’s have the professional maturity to never discuss a colleague if they are not present in the room with us. Gossip, often fueled by poor assumptions, spreads like wildfire and does great damage to personal brands inside a company. If we won’t say what we think to the person’s face, let’s not say it all. Instead of “What is ________’s problem?” let’s focus on “_______, how can I help you?”
  • Be more curious. The antidote to assumption is curiosity. Rather than guess or speculate, ask questions. If we observe bad behavior or experience a person in a way that is not typical, let’s be more curious. “Are you doing OK? You seem out of sorts and a bit stressed. Is there anything I can do to help?” Curiosity opens doors, expands our understanding, leads to solutions and is always the right path to follow.
  • Give grace. Could any of us get through a week without a little grace thrown our way? There is always somebody, often unknown to us, overlooking our worst behavior, tolerating our mistakes, giving us the benefit of the doubt, and willing to help us get back on track. Grace is comprised of patience, understanding, forgiveness and love. I would wager we all like to receive it, but maybe we all could all do a better job of giving it to our colleagues when they get off track.
  • Sincerely offer to help. This may seem obvious, but in my experience, I don’t see it often enough. When someone at work is struggling and we have practiced the preceding four behaviors well, the natural next step is to help, coach, mentor, advise our colleague in addressing their issues. Be respectfully candid, give concrete examples of the behavior you observed and offer helpful solutions.

I don’t think I have ever encountered another professional (including myself) who didn’t deal with a negative personal brand issue at least once in their career. If you are in this situation, follow the steps above I shared with the leader over breakfast as a starting point. We have a responsibility to address these issues for ourselves, but we also have an obligation to help our colleagues when they are going through the same thing. It is simply the right thing to do, and remember, the struggling colleague may one day be us.