What do you think about when you hear the phrase “personal branding strategy?” You might think it’s a plan to become a social media influencer or turn your name and likeness into a commodity. That may be true in some cases, but it’s also a strategy for career climbers and current (or would-be) executives to define themselves as leaders.

In corporate America—especially in the upper echelons of leadership—your personal brand illustrates not only what you deliver but also how you deliver it, and it should be an authentic representation of your values, experiences, and approach to leadership.

Of course, discovering your authentic style of leadership requires a level of awareness and vulnerability that doesn’t always come naturally to high-impact leaders. It didn’t come naturally to me either, at least not early in my career when I was still learning what it meant to be a leader.

It was the late 80s, long before diversity, inclusion, and sensitivity training would become standard in corporate America, and women in the workplace were having a harder time than today earning the respect of their peers. It was also before computers would become ubiquitous, so my boss—a very organized man—had a unique filing system to keep track of what was going on with each of his direct reports.

Each regional director on the team had their own colored file folder that seemingly corresponded to some unique personality trait or individual characteristic. A colleague with the last name of Brown had a brown folder; one guy was from Colorado and very earthy and outdoorsy, so he had a green folder; another woman was Italian and had a fiery personality, so her folder was—you guessed it—red.

Much to my dismay, when I learned that my boss had selected a pink folder for me, I was surprised and disappointed.

What did this mean? Was I too girly? Too soft? Too nice? It was hard enough to be taken seriously as a businesswoman back then, so naturally I was on the defensive and assumed that the pink folder was somehow a reflection of how my boss—and by extension, my peers—viewed me. Unfortunately, this was the assumption I worked under for a year until I finally worked up the courage to confront my boss.

Why did you choose pink for me? What are you trying to say about me? What do I have to do to be taken seriously?

I was not prepared for what would happen next. He was taken aback; he couldn’t believe that I was upset about the pink folder. Not because he thought I was overreacting, but because he had assumed that pink was in fact the perfect color for me.

“Janis,” he said, “you’re one of my most effective and successful regional directors. People love working for you, and you achieve great results for our company. But you also lead in a very feminine way; you don’t try to be one of the guys—you’re compassionate and caring, and to me that’s the color pink.”

And you know what? He was spot on!

I had spent so much time thinking I needed to justify and defend myself as a businesswoman that I didn’t recognize my authentic leadership style that radiated from my core. I was a compassionate and caring leader. I did embrace my femininity and I wasn’t trying to be like one of “the guys.” As a result, I had tapped into a source of authentic power I did not fully own before.

Once I embraced who I was instead of worrying about how I might appear to others, I was empowered to lead authentically. I feel fortunate I was able to lean into my authentic leadership style so early on in my career.

The “pink folder episode” is one of my favorite personal anecdotes as it marked a pivotal moment in my professional life when I embraced my truth and owned my authentic leadership style.  I often use the story to help facilitate the same kind of reflection, growth and transformation in others who may be holding themselves back from being their most authentic and impactful selves.

We have come a long way since I started my career, but – unfortunately – some of the same misperceptions still exist for women leaders today.  That’s one of the reasons I founded Questage with my husband, specifically to help women leaders step into their true power and actualize their full impact as business professionals.

If you want help leveling up your career, Questage can help. Visit our website to learn more about our High-Impact Women’s Leadership Roundtables & One-on-One Coaching, or contact me to schedule a coaching discovery session.

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