“Be yourself” was one of the most important pieces of advice that I gave to students at Fordham University School of Law when I spoke to them about about how to build a strong professional brand. I told the students that I’ll never be someone who wears conservative black suits to work every day and that’s okay (notice the French bulldog shirt that I’m wearing when I spoke to them – I also often wear my lucky Darth Vader earrings when I’m giving a presentation because they make me feel fearless).
Maybe you love bow ties or have pink hair or wear something signature that speaks to you. It’s important to find ways to express yourself, inject your personality and be unique while also being professional. You CAN do both and still be successful in corporate America and at professional service firms. Find the type of work environment that lets you be YOU. Also, it’s never too early (or late) to build your brand or reinvent yourself.
I’ve had several opportunities to guest lecture to law students and junior associates about how to build strong professional brands, which I love to do. I always stress the importance of building a strong professional brand (starting today and continuing every day) and how to utilize social media to promote your unique strengths through a show vs. tell and “humblebrag” approach.
I also always talk about how going out of your way to aid individuals in your network without expecting anything in return will lead to new business over time. These are actions such as helping someone find a job, sending someone an article you think they might find of interest, or congratulating a contact on a professional or personal milestone. Cultivating relationships and helping people are often the keys to professional success today.
But at the end of the day, you can do all of those things and if you aren’t YOU and in the right work environment, it just won’t feel right.
It took me a long time to realize that sometimes a job won’t work out not because you don’t love the work but because the environment and culture isn’t right for you.
Let me give you an example, I once worked at a firm once where I was a complete fish out of water in terms of the culture fit. It was clear that the preferred style of dress was conservative business clothing – dark colored suits with panty hose (gasp!) and closed toe shoes. I could not think of anything more old fashioned or stifling – and it seemed like a step back in time for women. It was the type of place where many people referred to their colleagues as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in emails and in person. It wasn’t a place where people openly laughed and were animated in the hallways either. It was a quiet, put your head down and work kind of place.
Although the work was incredibly challenging, my colleagues were brilliant and the compensation was better than any other firm at which I have worked, it was not right for me to say the least. It wasn’t about the clothes I wore per se, but just the overall formality of the environment that just wasn’t me. I can only describe it as though I felt I was pretending to be someone who I wasn’t in order to fit in. And for awhile it worked but then I couldn’t keep up appearances with it because I am who I am, and you are who you are, and we should own that and celebrate that.
The great thing is that there are more than 400 law firms, plus consulting firms, accounting firms, financial instituations and lots of other professional service firms and service providers with terrific opportunities fo each of us.
It’s just a matter of finding the one where you belong. Sometimes you just have to go try out a few work environments before you get it right. Don’t let anyone tell you to stay in a job where you are miserable especially when you have the opportunity to go somewhere that is a better fit for you. You’ll often find like I did, that you’ll make a few mistakes along the way and that it’s not always all about the money.
Some things to think about as you search for your next opportunity:
- Will they support my professional development?
- Do I like the people with whom I will be working?
- Does the work seem challenging?
- Is there room for growth?
- Do the people who are working there seem happy – like genuinely happy?
- What is your ideal work/life balance? Make sure your new job fits with this.
Really take stock of details – how you are treated during the entire interview process, how the receptionist greets you, how employees interact with each other, what the workspaces look like – these touchpoints will tell you a lot about a future place of employment.
I wish you could see me right now sitting in my office dressed in a very work appropriate business casual outfit wearing my French bulldog earrings, feeling really good about all that I have experienced and all the missteps that have gotten me here.
Please don’t twist yourself into a pretzel just to make something work that doesn’t feel quite right. There are lots of other opportunities out there! Find the one that’s right for you.