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On the Contrary Got a Reputation Be Sure It's the One You Want

April 19, 2001
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I'm part of a team that has no idea how much I fret about being part of ateam. I left our last meeting worried that I had talked too much, that my ideasweren't original, that I was too critical of the logo design under discussion,and that everyone in the room had noticed when my mind drifted from the topic athand to what I was going to cook for dinner . . . I'd decided on rosemary-garlicchicken, and my smile must've given me away.

    By the time I got into my car and buckled the seat belt, I'd convinced myselfthat everyone else was driving home with the same thought: "What was thematter with Shari today?"

    I used to believe that this kind of self-consciousness was abnormal, theresult of some trauma that had occurred before I wore underwear that wasn't madeof plastic. Surely, no one else worries about image as much as I do.

    Come to find out, they do. According to a recent study by Watson WyattWorldwide, 81 percent of top-performing employees say the desire to maintain agood reputation affects their performance more than compensation, the workitself, or the desire to please supervisors. And what is reputation, I ask, buta fancy word for the image a person projects on a repeated basis? Simply stated,top performers do a good job because they care what others think about them.

    On reading the Watson Wyatt statistic, I gloated-to myself, of course,because external gloating creates a bad impression. I gloated because if Ihaven't mentioned it already, these were top performers who worried most abouttheir reputations. Apparently, it's a good thing to be concerned about yourimage.

    But then I got to thinking: human beings are a social species. It seems to methat on some level, everyone must care about his or her reputation. (Well, maybenot Anna Nicole Smith, and maybe not Eminem, but most everybody else.) What dotop performers do that makes the desire for a good reputation work for them? TheWatson Wyatt survey didn't say, but I have a hunch that top performers succeedbecause they are specific about what they want their reputations to be.

    You see, it's not enough to say you want to have a good reputation. That'slike saying you want to be a better person or lose some weight. It's too vague.It's like former President Bill Clinton saying he wanted his legacy to be thatof a good president. Clinton will no doubt be remembered for a lot of things,but "goodness" probably isn't one of them.

    People who are more specific about their reputations, however, often getcloser to their goals. Pablo Picasso wanted to be remembered as one of the mostindependent and creative artists of all time. Princess Diana once said,"I'd like people to think of me as someone who cares about them." Andthen there's the all-time champion of reputation management: my old high schoolfriend Sue Myra.

    In 1977, when every suburban high school student I knew was drinking Schlitzmalt liquor out of quart bottles purchased by strangers at 7-Eleven, Sue Myrawas drinking martinis. Granted, they came from a can, but Sue wrapped animpressive white linen handkerchief around the can to absorb the moisture.

    In 1977, when everyone else I knew trudged to school in frayed bell-bottoms,Sue Myra flew into class wearing woolen capes.

    In 1977, when everyone else I knew smoked illegal substances in the backseats of used Celicas, Sue Myra smoked slim brown cigarettes in silverholders-in public.

    Sue was not born into money or class, but from an early age she wanted to beregarded as a sophisticate. Of course, we made fun of her in high school-whowouldn't? But to this day, she's the most refined individual I've ever met.

    What Sue Myra, Princess Di, and Pablo Picasso have in common is that they setout knowing precisely what they wanted their reputations to be. Yes, theyworried about their images, but they used that concern to guide their actions.

    So here's the lesson: many corporate HR professionals today are struggling toimprove their image and change their reputation. That's good. Remember, it's topperformers who worry most about these things.

    But working to merely improve a reputation is not good enough. You have to beclear what you want the new image to be. Do you want to be a leader? An employeeadvocate? A problem solver? Do you want to be the keeper of corporate culture orthe master of knowledge management? You have to decide. You have to decidebecause being all things to all people doesn't work. Pablo Picasso wouldn't haveexperienced such artistic success if he also fretted about being a giver, a laLady Di, and a sophisticate, a la Sue Myra. You must explicitly craft yourmission and stick with it.

    Living up to somebody else's ideals doesn't work. As essayist Frank MooreColby said: "I have never hurried to meet a public expectation withoutleaving myself behind."

    I'm well aware that I'm probably teaching what I most need to learn. Ihaven't a clue what I want my reputation to be among my new team members. ButI'm still going to fret about it, because worrying about my reputation is a goodthing. The folks at Watson Wyatt say so. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have tocheck a bid I placed on eBay. It's for one slightly used silver cigaretteholder.

Workforce, April 2001, pp.22-23 Subscribe Now!

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