In the movie Clear and Present Danger, James Earl Jones tells Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan: “Your word is who you are.”

Now, James Earl Jones can say just about anything and make it sound like the ultimate piece of wisdom, but in this case, the adage was incomplete. Your reputation – who you are, to other people – is more than just words. In fact, if we’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that the intentionality, scope, and consistency of our actions matter even more. But when we’re all socially-distanced and reacting to unprecedented challenges every day, how do you make sure you’re developing the reputation you want?

What is a reputation, really? In one sense, a reputation is a political tool that can be manipulated – for better or worse. In another, a reputation is a passive outcome of any “thing’s” choices. Any entity (i.e., person, group or organization) carries a reputation that molds (and is continuously molded by) every choice thereafter. Today we work in a social enterprise, making it impossible to avoid the reputation we inherit – which often takes on a life of its own.

Why does reputation matter, especially now?  Our reputation matters now more than ever. As we continue to work remotely, assumptions about us carry more weight in how others perceive our email communications, Zoom habits, and tone of voice on a call. We are operating on less information about our colleagues’ current mood, stress levels, and body language than we had before, and the intention/perception gap is a fickle foe.

How is reputation formed? The mind is always filling in gaps, like how we insert bias when passing by a stranger or how our visual blind spots go unnoticed. Likewise, our reputation speaks for itself when we are not there to explain our true intentions, character, or thinking.

In Warren Buffett’s words, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it.” Whether we like it or not, how we act and behave has serious consequences, especially if what we do is very consistent, extreme, or diagnostic.

  • How to solidify your reputation: The more consistently one acts or behaves across a range of situations, the stronger the “effect” on their reputation. For example, if Pat cracks jokes not only at work events but in a Board meeting or during a serious budget call, her colleagues would assume that her sense of humor is just part of who Pat is. If Miles is always urging people to “get to the point” and constantly rushes out of the room as soon as a meeting is over, it’s probably safe to say he’s an impatient guy. We are confident in what we know about others when they act the same way across time and situations, from Monday through Friday, and in one meeting to the next. This is why cultivating self-awareness is so crucial – so you can get a sense of the reputation you might be developing by default, and act intentionally if it’s not in line with the way you’d like to be perceived. (More on how to do this below.)
  • How to shape your reputation: Extreme or standout behaviors also hold a lot of weight when constructing and changing our reputation. Specifically, the more difficult it is to do something, the more telling it is of your character. For example, if John genuinely extends the olive branch to his biggest rival in the firm, people will commend his humility. Or if Shivansh is challenged in front of the executive team and stands his ground, others would note his courage and conviction going forward. Ben & Jerry’s recently provided a good example of this at the corporate level. Back in June, companies and organizations all over the world issued statements in response to the killing of George Floyd. These ranged from vague promises of commitment to social justice to unequivocal support of Black Lives Matter and related movements. Ben & Jerry’s released not only a powerfully-written statement, but a list of demands aimed at various branches of the government to take action in dismantling white supremacy. They are also continuing to take action in this space. This demonstrates that their values and priorities go far beyond that of your typical ice cream company.

 Now what? During COVID-19, there is a heightened vigilance for signs of your true character. Faced with new stressors and job insecurity, we shift our focus toward what is at stake and how we stack up against peers or competitors. Everyone wants to know who is competent, trustworthy, loyal, and courageous in this trying time. Plus, it is important that we are intentional about the story that is told in our absence so we can maintain trust while not physically present.

So: What is the story you are telling others? Wherever you focus your attention amid a crisis is indicative of your character. The assumption is that many priorities are competing for our time and energy, and how you invest these shows what matters most to you. Consider the self-reflection guide below as a basis for auditing your reputation and thinking about how to take control of your story.

  • How do you show you care about your most valuable relationships?
  • What agenda items or meetings have been deprioritized and why, compared to pre-COVID?
  • To what extent does your calendar reflect your values and priorities?
  • To what extent does your budget reflect your values and priorities?
  • What is the prevailing story you want to speak for you in your absence?
  • If I were to ask leaders at your organization, would they know what you care most about, and how that might have shifted and changed in the last six months?
  • What is one way you can experiment to change the story others share about you?
  • Solicit feedback from peers, leaders, and your team. Ask about your reputation and their opinion of how it does or does not serve you.

These days, a lot is out of our control. But if you’re intentional about the reputation you shape, you can emerge as a trusted resource in times of uncertainty. To paraphrase another famous line by the great Mr. Jones: if you build it, people will come.

What experiences have you had with managing your personal reputation or your organization’s as you’ve navigated this tumultuous time? What have you learned? Tell us in the comments below!