You may think you already know how others view you — as a skilled communicator, or an incisive numbers guy, or a manager who always brings out the best in her team. But then again, you might be surprised. One modest, self-deprecating executive was shocked to learn, after engaging an executive coach who examined his professional relationships, that his habit of interrupting people led his colleagues to perceive him as arrogant and haughty — almost the exactly opposite of the truth.
Particularly for high-ranking executives, it can be hard to recognize how you're really viewed by others. For one thing, employees who don't want to jeopardize their standing may conceal any negative perceptions and "put on a happy face"; for another, power has been shown to dramatically distort leaders' self-awareness. "Studies of the effect of power on the power holder consistently find that power produces overconfidence and risk taking, insensitivity to others, stereotyping, and a tendency to see other people as a means to the power holder's gratification," Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer writes in his book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't.
Yet when it comes to your personal brand — your professional reputation — it's not about how you view yourself. What matters is how the world sees you. "If three people tell you you're a horse, buy a saddle," says angel investor Judy Robinett. In other words, listen to what the outside world is telling you, because they're probably right. So how can professionals get that honest feedback, especially if you don't have access to an executive coach?
Seek out patterns in your paper trail. If you have access to copies of past performance reviews or recommendations letters that others have written for you, you can scour the written record for patterns. Of course everyone will have a slightly different take. But if you see multiple mentions of a particular skill set ("Lisa is a brilliant public speaker") or shortcoming ("Martin has a hard time accepting feedback"), you should take heed.
Examine your online presence. Next, search for yourself online. What comes up first? Is it what you expected? Is it what you'd like to convey to the world? What would a person who didn't know you think? If there are any damaging or erroneous links, it's better to find out now (so you can take action), rather than having a potential client or employer discover them.
Conduct your own "360 interviews." This is the first step most executive coaches would take — and if you don't have a coach, you can do it for yourself. Invite trusted colleagues, your boss, and your employees out for coffee, tell them you're working to raise the bar professionally, and ask for their honest feedback: What do you do well? Where could you grow? What three words would they use to describe you? Their perspective is likely to be revealing.
Hold your own focus group. In my book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, I profile a woman named Mary Skelton Roberts who — searching for more clarity in her professional life — held a focus group with a mix of her friends and colleagues. Mary sat back and listened for several hours as the participants shared their thoughts about her strengths, abilities, and areas they'd like to see her explore (the session was moderated by a friend, and Mary wasn't allowed to respond — only to ask clarifying questions). Other people "almost have a bird's eye view, and they can see your life in ways you may not be able to, because you're involved in day-to-day living," she told me. The focus group "took me to the next level in terms of my professional development."
We simply know too much about ourselves; we can't separate the signal from the noise enough to grasp how the outside world really sees us. But by retracing the paper trail of what's been written about us and asking our colleagues for their honest opinions, there's a lot we can learn about how we're viewed by others. And if what we discover doesn't match up to how we'd like to be seen — like the executive whose habit of interrupting others was derailing his career — we can finally take action to fix it.