Manage social norms to promote your professional brand

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Thanks to Netflix, I have been enjoying the guilty pleasure of binge watching the TV series "Mad Men." The brilliance of the series can be found in its exquisite attention to minute details to develop nuanced characters and capture a specific period in our history. In a seemingly inconsequential scene to any major plot line, the writers incorporated a major career/life lesson regarding personal and professional branding that is as applicable today as it was in the 1950s.

Joan, the politically savvy head of the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper, was setting a table in preparation for a dinner party designed to impress her husband Greg's work colleagues. An aspiring doctor, Greg, wanted to use this event to impress the Chief of Surgery in order to secure a coveted surgical residency. He insisted that the Chief of Surgery be seated at the head of the table, in deference to his title and authority. Joan insisted that her husband be seated at the head of the table in his home, exclaiming, "I will not have the other wives think that your wife does not know how set a proper table."

They argued the merits of their positions until they ultimately decide to have a buffet, allowing guests to sit wherever they preferred. This solution ensured both Greg and Joan would be viewed favorably by their respective cohort group. It allowed them to influence the perceptions others would form of them to suit their specific purpose.

Why others' opinions matter

This scene reminds us just how important it is to understand the standards by which others are judging our behavior in order to make conscious choices about our own behavior to promote our intended brand. Sometimes, the standards may seem arbitrary or even silly, but when abiding by those standards (or not) helps shape the perceptions of those who hold the power to influence our ability to achieve our objectives, we must learn how to navigate them.

One option is to ignore the rules and social norms. While this is a completely valid choice, there will likely be consequences for it. Identify what the price will be before you act to determine if that is the best option. With a little forethought, you may find a way to circumnavigate, as Joan and Greg did. The opinion of the Chief of Surgery did matter and could possible influence the outcome of Greg's career.

If the pre-established rules of the surgical department demand that the Chief be treated in a particular way, how wise would it be to challenge that rule at the very moment you are trying to impress him? Yet, rather than just accept the pre-described definition of appropriate behavior, or that of the wives, Greg and Joan came up with a creative solution that allowed them to avoid compromising Greg's status at home while acknowledging his status in the hierarchy at work. They were respectful of the rules, yet found a way around them without sacrificing an important personal value.

Learning to be respectful of rules does not mean you always have to follow them exactly as prescribed. Finding the win-win opportunity to establish and promote your intended brand is always the preferred approach in the workplace and in life.

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