On June 13, The Riveter and 14 Hands Winery presented a panel discussion entitled “How to Revamp Your Brand at Work.” The event, moderated by Kari Leitch, senior vice president of communications and corporate affairs for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, addressed the conundrum of shifting identities that can often occur at any given point in a decades-long career. These leaders contributed their thoughts:
- Harini Gokul, technology leader and investor.
- Lara Mae Chollette, the head of HR at Ellenos Yogurt.
- Michelle Rudd, partner at Summit Trail Advisors.
Here are some key takeaways from the day.
On a brand of one’s own
Leitch led the discussion by asking the women how they defined their personal brand. Each woman shared how they define themselves. “Authenticity is very important to me,” explained Leitch, “and to have a voice that really captures the essence of who I am, and that I feel very comfortable speaking my truth in the workplace, but also in making sure that I encourage my team members and all of my colleagues to use and share their voice in the workplace. Those attributes are very indicative of my own personal brand.”
“Personally, the brand is less important,” Gokul said. “The person is important. And that the journey to become and understand the person you are takes decades. You’re a different person in your 20s than your 30s and 40s, and they’re all okay,” she said. “That was my first thing, is to say, you will change, and that’s okay.”
Chollete, meanwhile, previously worried that she had painted herself into a corner. “I thought my personal brand was tied to what email address I had early in my career. I thought, ‘Oh, my first email is email@example.com.'”
But as Chollette, who’d moved from basketball to yogurt, explained, you can change and evolve in your career and your brand.
Even if you work for a well-known brand, be yourself
Though you might represent a multinational conglomeration, it is you they remember. Rudd, who previously worked at Wells Fargo, said she likes to think about the question: “What do people say about you when you’re not in the room?” She spent many years trying to blend in and wear the basic black suit, and realized that nobody expected her to just blend in. “I learned that people were drawn to me for different reasons, not because of where I worked. I discounted those reasons a lot,” she said. “I am on purpose wearing color today, because I spent probably the first half of my career just invisible in a black corporate suit. Really trying hard to look professional. That wasn’t who I was.”
Feedback from clients will tell you about your brand
Rudd said a career counselor told her: “You are known for your network. You are known for how you build community and bring people together to get stuff done,’” she said. “And so pay attention to what people are saying about you when you can’t quite figure out what your brand is or you think it’s the company you work for.”
Sustain your passions
When Chollette was out of a job during the recession, she used her skills to help athletes raise money for charity; became a mentor for young people who wanted to break into the industry; and continued being involved in an area that she loved, even if it wasn’t a part of a professional job. “It’s really actually sticking with what I love, and keeping that brand going, even if it wasn’t like me working there,” she said.
Be the Swiss Army knife
Gokul says she eschews the age-old advice of “keep your head down and do what it takes.” “Do you guys know what a Swiss Army knife is?,” she asked. “That’s what all of us are.” Professional women often have many skillsets that aren’t being used, particularly if someone has been in the same role for a long time. “When it comes to transitions, you can still stay true to what you are: your purpose, your passion,” she said. “What makes you get up and go bright-eyed, bushy-tailed? Stay true to that, but just pull out a different muscle,” she said. “So there are times when I exercised my global muscle, like I launched products worldwide, and that gives me energy.”
Be proactive in rebranding
When you want to transition to another area, Leitch said, volunteer for roles related to that area. Let your supervisor know you are interested. “My personal interest has always been politics, and so when we had an opening for somebody who can navigate the government affairs, I raised my hand,” Leitch said. “But I had also shown up and been present along the way to demonstrate that I had an interest and aptitude in the area. So it was a natural fit for that particular role to evolve.”
Gokul’s advice: Imagine yourself in 10 weeks, 10 months and 10 years. And plan accordingly, says Gokul. “Because when you know what you want, or where you want to be, like I wanted to live in Europe. That was my 20s 10-year dream. You will have others. Then you know what are the transitions and the risks to take, and what needs to happen to get there. So as an example, my 10-year goal was Europe, so I started building a body of knowledge.”
Use your network to help build a new one
When you are looking to make a shift, targeting certain people who are in the area or industry where you want to be, and sending a LinkedIn request with a note, can go a long way. Build relationships. “For those that are LinkedIn aficionados, I was at a salon conversation dinner in New York with a group of people, and found out that we all have QR codes in our LinkedIn profiles, which makes it super easy to connect,” Leitch said.
Once you’ve connected, follow up, bearing in mind that relationship building takes time and effort.
Find a mentor or sponsor who isn’t emotionally invested
Michelle Rudd advises finding a mentor, but says that some of the best advice she got was from a life/career coach that she hired. “And she’s changed my life. Partially because she’s uncorrelated. So if you think about the mentor or person in your life who is uncorrelated, who isn’t so emotionally involved in your success or your happiness, or your paycheck or anything like that, that can really just listen.” A mentor or sponsor can help guide you to the next path.
Be a mentor or sponsor
Chollette’s had been a mentor for someone who ended up rising through the ranks at the LA Sparks. That paid off in spades. “Full circle, she actually asked my daughter to be her kid’s COO sidekick for the day for her home opener,” she said. “It gave me so much joy, to see somebody rise up the ranks as well, further than I ever got to in my sports career.”
As for the shifting winds of her career, Chollette takes a sanguine attitude. “As you go through your 20s, 30s, it doesn’t matter anymore what that [email] address is. There’s a quote by Maya Angelou, and please forgive me, because I’m probably not going to say this right, but it says, “People aren’t going to remember what words you said to them, but they are going to remember how made them feel.'”
Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of the Stranger. She has been a staff writer at The Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs. You can also find her at Patreon.