Having the right image is a critical success factor for professionals who set their sights on climbing the ‘career ladder’ towards middle and senior leadership roles
Whether you are just setting out on a management career or contemplating your next move, how confident are you that you are on decision makers’ radar screens, or that you understand what it takes to appear on their radar when it comes to promotion and career progression opportunities? What do decision makers look for in the selection process? And most importantly, do you have it?
‘Professional image’ refers to the mental pictures others hold about you. What and how you communicate, your integrity, how you look and how you behave, all contribute to that mental picture. Whether the people you need to impress are external to your present employer, such as recruitment consultants, or part of the hierarchy in which you currently work, the image you have created will be a major factor in progressing or stalling your career.
So what can professionals do to shape the image others hold of them? How can you know what image others hold of you and how that will influence their decision-making about the position you want to make yours?
Reputation and potential
Your professional image will be assessed from two related perspectives.
First, decision makers are interested in your contribution to outcomes in whatever settings you have been working. Also, the manner in which you have achieved those outcomes is likely to be scrutinised. For example, have you demonstrated leadership? Is it evident that you understand the ‘big picture’ of strategic direction and that you help others see where their contribution fits at the level of day to day operations? Or have you largely been content to be a team player, contributing well but generally perceived as a follower of others’ lead?
If you have shown leadership, what sort of a leader have you been? Have you shown respect for others at the same time as being goal-oriented? What sort of professional reputation have you built? The answers to these and similar questions will be a key factor in determining your career progress or otherwise.
The second aspect of your image on which decision-makers focus is your management potential. This is especially significant when a promotion is in the offing. The engineer applying for their first supervisory position is likely to be assessed for their potential to guide the work of others. Decision-makers might be looking for evidence that they have coached or mentored others even if in an informal way. This need not have been in the work setting. For example, a construction engineer’s professional standing in the minds of decision makers may be enhanced when they learn of their work as a volunteer leader at youth camps.
In another example of the importance people attach to your potential, a technical professional, keen to move into a full line management role, should be able to demonstrate capability in core management skills in addition to their technical specialisation. By evidencing an understanding of budget development and report writing, knowledge of occupational health and safety legislation and practical application of performance management principles, the potential candidate puts themselves in a much stronger position than others competing for the same role who can’t demonstrate these skills.
The means by which management skills have been gained are likely to be considered alongside a demonstrated capacity to apply them intelligently. An MBA graduate, for example, will need to demonstrate not only a strong grasp of concepts but a sound understanding of their practical application. The hands-on skills and track record of a highly-qualified professional being considered for a management role will be a major factor when he or she is being considered against, for example, a surveyor who taught themselves basic accounting, now volunteers as secretary for a not-for-profit board and can demonstrate the value they’ve added to that organisation.
Finally, in making your own assessment of your management potential it is useful to ask yourself whether you would rather be liked by colleagues or produce the best possible outcomes for the organisation. Confronting this stark choice enables you to honestly assess your preparedness to take on difficult management work such a conveying critical feedback to staff or handing out redundancies. When potential managers show willingness to put work interests ahead of being liked, their standing in the career progression stakes tends to advance.
Projecting your image
There is a great deal else that professionals can do to create the image by which they want to be judged. How you behave, what you say, the attitudes you express, the opinions you share all contribute to the professional image you project and which others evaluate. For example, whilst being tuned in to the rumour mill is an important management skill, a professional with management aspirations must make sure they are not seen as the instigator or propagator of gossip!
In some settings the politically savvy professional will choose to moderate their behaviour and develop interpersonal relations at work according to what they understand to be expected of the ‘upwardly mobile’. Another person might prefer to project an image which reflects their personal values and beliefs, even if this is likely to reduce their chances of career advancement in that particular setting. For professionals with stronger associations with like professionals than with workplace colleagues, career advancement often arises from the professional image held by others in their profession. For example, a well-qualified lawyer with a passion for the humane treatment of prisoners around the world may pursue career advancement not in a partnership with a commercial law firm but with a human rights organisation.
It is important to remember that projecting your image is only one side of the image coin. How our image is perceived and judged by others particularly those who make the decisions which determine our career progress is a key determinant of career success.
However much we invest in developing our image ultimately we are judged on how we are perceived by others. Whilst there is a great deal we can do to influence others’ perceptions they are also affected by a myriad factors outside of our control. Therefore a robust approach to professional image management requires a process by which we continually check how we are perceived and compare this with the image we want to create. Often minor and sometimes radical adjustments are needed if professionals are to realise their career aspirations. Also changing people’s perceptions can take time.
As an example a well-respected systems analyst who had successfully managed many projects realised that he was perceived by senior management to lack the social skills necessary for the promotion he desired. He attended a number of short courses on emotional intelligence performance appraisal and conflict resolution with the intention of addressing this gap. He worked hard to apply the new skills expressing empathy whenever it seemed opportune and offering affirming words of encouragement to less experienced staff members. It was only when his manager asked why he was behaving so out of character that he realised it would take time to change the way he was perceived.
Managing your professional image merits serious attention an analytical approach and on-going investment of time and effort. Developing projecting monitoring andmaintaining your professional image – equipped with an understanding of the importance of reputation development and management potential – can be challenging and difficult but is intrinsic to and ultimately an exciting and rewarding part of advancing into a management role.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant facilitator and management educator specialising in organisational and leadership development governance and performance improvement and team dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).
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