Overcoming people's past perceptions of you isn't easy. When I launched my consulting business seven years ago, I was astonished to find — years later — that acquaintances and even friends hadn't kept up with my career transition. They'd ask about my past work in politics or nonprofit advocacy, oblivious to the changes that had been consuming my life. It wasn't their fault, however. These days, we all have thousands of Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections; it's just not realistic to keep up with everyone's latest developments. But the fact that they weren't aware of my new business meant I was losing out on referrals and potential clients. I realized I had to ensure they took notice.
Of course, you can't just prop someone's eyelids open, A Clockwork Orange-style, and force them to read your white papers or watch your webinars. So how do you get other people to realize, and remember, what you're doing now — and grasp what you're truly capable of?
Create content. As a knowledge worker, it can be hard to demonstrate your expertise to anyone besides your boss. But the Internet — and the ability for anyone to start publishing content — has given us a profound opportunity. Just as a graphic designer has a portfolio she can display of her best logos and brochures, you should be creating intellectual property (blog posts, podcasts, videocasts — even a savvy and professional Twitter feed can count) that demonstrates your expertise. If you've changed careers, or are trying to move up the ladder at your company, others may still think of the "old you." Creating solid content reminds people of your new skills and knowledge (it's hard to ignore it if they see links to your blog posts every day in their social media feed) and enables people to judge you based on the quality of the material you produce, not your past history or credentials.
Leverage social proof. It's a term psychologists love to use — "social proof." Basically, it means that people look to others around them to judge the value of something. (If a book has 1,000 five-star Amazon reviews, it must be good.) So how can you leverage this heuristic to help your career? If you're going to bother getting involved with a professional organization, you should make it a point to take a leadership role, because the social proof of being seen as a leader will have exponential benefits. Alan Weiss, a consultant who was the president of the National Speakers Association's New England chapter in the mid-1990s, thought his business would decline during those years because of the extra volunteer time commitment required. "But to my surprise," he told me, "I did about $250,000 more business. The visibility naturally accrues to you, and even though you don't seek it out, people come to you for interviews and advice. Your visibility grows and your brand grows."
Find a wingman. It's true: no one likes a braggart. But you can avoid the problem entirely, a powerhouse group of researchers led by Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford and Robert Cialdini of Arizona State discovered, by having someone else do the bragging for you. "People don't like people who self-promote," Pfeffer told me. "But ironically, even if you self-promote through the mouths of other people, somehow that stigma doesn't get associated with you. It's much better to have someone else toot your horn." If you can afford one, you could certainly hire a publicist. But another option is to find a like-minded "wingman" and take turns promoting each other. At cocktail parties or conferences, you and your friend can make a point of mentioning each other's accomplishments or bringing up conversational topics where your partner excels. It may sound artificial, but it doesn't have to be. Just consider it a chance to help your friend shine — and let him reciprocate.
In a frenetic world where we're all stretched far beyond Dunbar's number (the famed idea that humans are optimized to handle about 150 social relationships), it can be exceedingly hard to get noticed by others — and especially to ensure they're thinking about us in the ways we'd like. But we have to take action somehow, or risk missing out on professional opportunities simply because we're not on others' radars or they don't recognize our skills. By creating robust and regular content, mobilizing social proof, and finding a wingman to help spread the word, we can begin to break through and take charge of our reputation in the world.