I was at a university speaking to a class of graduating college seniors late last year, helping to prepare them – and their expectations – for their pending introduction to the working world. Most of these engineering students were still in the throes of preparing their final projects, whilst applying for their first post-graduation jobs.

I questioned whether they had worked on their application letters that would accompany their freshly-polished resumes, and whether their LinkedIn profiles were updated. Few had yet experienced interviews with prospective employers. Fewer still were prepared for what they had to face.

But beyond what was on paper or a computer screen, what about their “brands,” I asked. How would they be perceived by business owners and hiring managers sitting across the table or on the other end of a Zoom interview?

I saw dozens of puzzled stares in return. In short, they hadn’t engineered their professional persona.

When we look at the education system across the globe, they all fail our children in two particular areas. The first is financial literacy, or preparing them with a basic knowledge for their financial lives, such as banking, taxes and credit scores.

The other is preparing students for their professional lives, the job hunt, especially the interview process. It is vastly undervalued, yet there are vital skills that transcend any job interview. It’s about building one’s personal “brand,” or how people see you and how your reputation is impacted by your every interaction.

In 1997, management guru Tom Peters penned a cover article on the topic in Fast Company magazine. Emblazoned with the ubiquitous image of the detergent Tide sunburst, the headline read, “The Brand Called You – You can’t move up if you don’t stand out.” It was one of the first exposes of its kind, truly diving into the importance of building one’s personal brand.

“Big companies understand the importance of brands,” they wrote. “Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand…the CEO of Me Inc.”

What we’ve learned since, is that personal branding for college grads, employees seeking a promotion or executives plotting their next C-suite post starts well before that letter is written or an introductory email requesting an interview or meeting is sent.

It should even start well before a student nervous about their job prospects hits their senior year. It’s a life-long project that occurs with every interaction with a stranger of potential influence – the manager at your first job as a kid, your teachers and professors, and every adult you encounter along the way.

One of my core beliefs is that we are marketing ourselves in every interaction we have. We are selling a product – ourselves. No less than a CEO or entrepreneur selling their widgets, we are our own brand managers, and our widget is us.

That is why it’s critical that we think carefully about how we present ourselves – in person, online, and in each personal engagement. Below are seven ways to polish our personal brands to ensure they reflect who we truly are…

  • Look at yourself in the mirror. Literally and figuratively, look at yourself and be honest, self-critical (without being overly critical). Take your personal bias out of the equation and think about how other people will see and how they may perceive you. The old adage “perception is reality” rings true.
  • Do your interview prep. Do mock interviews with family or friends already in the workforce. Video it. Do you slouch, squirm or fail to make eye contact? This nonverbal communication and cues speak volumes about your presentation. Also, call your own phone, and once your voicemail is recording, pitch yourself to a phantom hiring manager. Then go back and listen to it – alone, with a friend or a mentor. Get over that “but I hate my own voice” nonsense and assess how you sound, how you come across and whether you present yourself well – without sounding rehearsed.
  • Dress for success. Never underestimate the role attire plays in setting each impression. From the first interview to follow-up meetings, to how you appear in the workplace, be business minded. What does a creased shirt, a short or revealing dress, or scuffed shoes say about you?
  • Prepare for the interview. Research the company, your division, even the person you’ll be meeting with. Do you have the same alma mater or common interests? Do you know people who already work there? Ask their opinions or insights. And watch what or how much you say. One slip can sink your ship. When I was at JP Morgan, a job candidate mentioned how much he would like to work at Morgan Stanley. Sure, it was a slip of the tongue, but it was an understandable deathblow for their candidacy.
  • Prepare questions. Every job interview is a two-way street. You want a job, but you want to end up in the right place. Remember that as much as they are interviewing you, you should be interviewing them! Ask how the company will help with your career advancement. Do they offer professional development programs? Is the ladder within reach for new hires like you? They are checking to see if you have their DNA, but do they have yours? In French/Latin, we us the phrase “personne morale” which refers to the concept of companies as a type of person. If you’re not feeling it, you likely won’t excel. Don’t hate your job before you even start.
  • Watch what you post. Social media is fun, but it can give the wrong impression that can make a potential employer shy away, including your manager to your HR Department. Too many pictures of you partying on the weekends with drinks in hand, or making disparaging or unsavoury comments about others, including politics, may harm your prospects. Whilst you think you can “delete” such posts from your Facebook, Instagram or other social media account, remember that the internet is written with indelible ink.

If you’re a parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt, even older sibling, or any adult who holds a significant role in a child or young adult’s life, help prepare them. It’s been said that it “takes a village to raise a child.” The same could be said for preparing a teen or college grad for their next job interview. Share your tips or insights on preparing for the professional world. Offer your advice – without seeming condescending.

Preparing your brand for future success isn’t a one-time endeavour, it’s a lifelong project. You – or your child, niece or nephew, younger sibling, or protege you’re mentoring in life – are a work in progress. Your brand is precious and valuable and can be destroyed in a moment. Protect it with your life.