Reputation Repair

Talent Management

June 4, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

Reputation doesn’t happen overnight — one event can’t form your reputation and one corrective gesture can’t reform it. You need a sequence of consistent, similar actions to begin the rebuilding process.

It’s doable, but it requires personal insight and discipline. When I first start working one-on-one with clients to change their behavior, they want instant results, but it doesn’t work that way.

If you’re known as a sarcastic boss, you have to bite your tongue for a long time for people to recognize the change and start accepting the new you. You can go for weeks without deviating, but just one incident where the old sarcastic you reappears and people begin to wonder if you’ve changed at all.

You have to be consistent in how you present yourself. If you abandon that consistency, people get confused. The reputation you’re trying to form gets muddied by conflicting evidence and eventually loses its sharp focus.

Take a look around you at work. Which colleagues have clear, positive reputations, and what are they doing to achieve this enviable position? Consistency is often their primary virtue — without it, we’d never see the pattern they’re creating.

I used to marvel at an executive named Bill who rose to the highest ranks of his company and did it all from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. He decided early in his corporate career that his family was more important to him than work, so he set a personal goal of always being home by dinnertime — which meant that, despite being as ambitious as the next person, he had to get all his work done during regular work hours.

Bill didn’t have the cushion of working late or on weekends, yet his results were excellent. He was liked and admired by everyone he worked with, which partly explains his ascent at the company.

But it doesn’t explain everything.

“How did you do it?” I asked him.

“I always knew that my family came first,” Bill said. “So I vowed that I wouldn’t be one of those people who love trading gossip or need to demonstrate that they’re in the loop about all the company intrigue.

“If I could cut all that out of my workday — the small talk, the water cooler distractions, the beer after work, the impromptu sessions to complain about senior management — I figured I’d save a lot of time. I could do my job and get home at a normal hour. And I pretty much kept my vow.

“It’s funny though,” he continued. “At first I was the company oddball. I was capable and got good performance reviews. People saw me as no fun, no frills and a late-model Ward Cleaver. The only thing missing was the cardigan.

“But I was consistent and steady, and over time, that sober persona became my signature — and a virtue. People started to think of me as someone who could be counted on like clockwork. I was ‘dependable,’ which is a reputation I’ll take anytime.

“Because I didn’t traffic in office small talk, my bosses grew to consider me as someone who could be trusted with confidential information, which is ironic, because the less interested I was in other people’s secrets, the more comfortable they were sharing them with me.

“Eventually, my serious demeanor made people think I had leadership potential. People were willing to follow someone steady and dependable like me. I suppose they thought I wouldn’t let them down. And once people are willing to follow you, the sky’s the limit. All because I wanted to clock out at 5:30.”

One key to Bill’s success is his consistency. He repeatedly gave people an unambiguous way to view him, which happens when you’re disciplined about your objectives and follow through. After a while, people are locked into one way of interpreting your behavior, and your reputation falls neatly into place.

Another interesting fact about Bill — even though his kids are grown and out of the house, and he doesn’t always have to leave work by 5:30, he still sticks to his schedule. That’s the best thing about creating a reputation for yourself: Do it right the first time, and you may never have to change your ways.