What Being Called ‘Rough Around the Edges’ Taught Me About Personal Branding

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I remember my very first annual review as a real-life employee pretty vividly.

I remember going into it feeling confident. I knew I was doing a good job. In fact, I remember feeling like there was a possibility I might even receive a raise or promotion on the spot, because I was doing such a good job.

(Worth noting: I was 22 years old at the time, in my very first job out of college, and had no understanding whatsoever of corporate America’s inner-workings. Also, I am notorious for setting unrealistically high expectations for myself and others, and consequently setting myself up for disappointment. I don’t mean to spill the beans, but this quickly turned into one of those scenarious.)

Surprise: my first performance eval didn’t exactly pan out how I’d expected. In fact, I walked away feeling completely caught-off-guard and defeated.

It wasn’t that it went horribly. It didn’t. Like I said, I was doing a good job. The issue was that everything I’d been told throughout the year I’d spent with this company – the feedback I’d received on the quality and quantity of work I’d completed, answers I’d gotten when I asked about how I was doing – had led me to believe there was very little I could be doing better. But, when it came time to discuss my performance in this formal, one-on-one, annual-review situation, the feedback I received didn’t quite match up with what I’d been hearing all year.

That was disappointing.

In that moment, I learned there’s a right way and a wrong way to do annual employee reviews.

The right way involves never allowing an annual review to be the first time an employee is hearing specific feedback about their performance, whether that feedback is good or bad. For you ladder-climbing leaders and entrepreneurial-minded passion-pursuers, learning to get comfortable giving real-time feedback is a skill you absolutely must master. I could spend dozens of blog posts on the importance of candid, real-time feedback (hey, maybe I will).

But, I digress. The misalignment between the ongoing feedback I’d received and what I heard during my annual review was disappointing, sure. But that wasn’t even the worst part.

The worst part was one sentence my supervisor said that I haven’t been able to shake, even 5+ years after the fact. The worst part of my first review was eight little words that made me question a whole lotta things:

“Kayla, you’re a little rough around the edges.”

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Looking back, I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to take it as negatively as I did. It’s certainly not the worst thing someone’s ever said about or even to me. Even in the moments after she said it, I remember totally brushing it off, mostly because I wasn’t sure how to respond. (<– That is just. so. typically. me. (ooh baby baby) While I invite and totally love the opportunity to receive honest, critical feedback, I’m not great at responding to it instantaneously. Sometimes I need to take a few minutes to digest and figure out how I truly feel about it.)

So, in true ‘me’ fashion, about 20 minutes after I got back to my desk, those eight little words were all I could think about. I remember feeling a little ashamed, a little hurt, and a lot uncertain.

What had she meant? Had I done something wrong or completely unprofessional? Had I said something that had come across as immature, revealing my age (which felt like a curse as a 22-year-old surrounded by much older, much-more-experienced coworkers)? Had I made some comment that only an unworldly, naive 20-something from an 800-person town in Wisconsin would say? What was wrong with me, and how could I fix it?

I remember feeling that if I wanted to be successful, the only option was to morph into a more-refined, more-polished, altogether different person. I didn’t know it then, but this was the first time I really thought about and questioned my personal brand.

As it so happens, this boss of mine submitted her resignation shortly after commenting on my ‘roughness’ and, within a few months, I was promoted to fill her role. Her departure gave me the perfect excuse to sweep her comments under the rug, but I never truly forgot what she had said. Even now, I find myself replaying that sentence in my head from time to time.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally decided I’m ok with being rough around the edges. It wasn’t until extremely recently that I realized ‘rough around the edges’ is part of what makes me who I am – it’s part of my personal brand.

Today, I am unapologetically who I am.

I am a small-town girl with big dreams. I’ve got Wisconsin roots and a whole lot of Midwestern values. I’ve got awkward moments that give yours a run for their money, guaranteed. I am someone who thinks honesty and authenticity is worth more than polished and refined any day. I say what I’m thinking when I’m thinking it, even when the timing’s wrong. Despite my better judgment, I incorporate Britney Spears lyrics into blog posts (see above) and leave them there, even though I know only about 5% of you will make the connection. Try as I might, I simply cannot eliminate the ‘f-word’ from my vocabulary, and frankly, I’ve stopped trying.

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Yes, those are all things you might call ‘rough edges,’ but those rough edges are me.

Those rough edges have helped me carve out a unique little corner of the world for myself, and have helped me build a thus-far successful career and life for myself. It’s those rough edges – the unique, quirky pieces of myself – that I should be thanking.

Which brings me to the moral of my story:

A strong personal brand isn’t a perfect personal brand.

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Personal branding isn’t so much about building something as it is about falling into what was there the whole time, embracing and amplifying the unique little pieces that make you you. Growing a magnetic personal brand isn’t about building a version of yourself that aligns with who other people think you should be. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

The strongest personal brands are the honest personal brands.

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Growing a personal brand works best when you focus on being, living and leveraging the most authentic version of yourself and your vision.

Are you ready to uncover and amplify your most-authentic personal brand? I’ve got plans in the works that might just be exactly what you’re looking for. Sign up for my mailing list to make sure you’re updated once those plans become real-life. In the meantime, you’ll receive a weekly newsletter full of my favorite content finds from the week – content that will help you focus your energy, fuel your passion, and achieve your version of success.

9 comments

  1. Great post – I talk all the time to people fresh out of college how surprising that first real work performance review is for those of us who have been high achievers throughout school, because the working world is a very different arena!

    There’s also a lot of really interesting research around Performance Reviews in general (this is what I study/consult on in my day job.) Most companies are shifting towards just in time feedback, but aren’t always providing the resources to support that huge culture shift to prepare line managers (real feedback is UNCOMFORTABLE!) Another great article that has stuck with me (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/05/02/stanford_researchers_say_women_get_vague_feedback_in_performance_reviews.html) – in a Stanford study it was found that women are less likely to receive concrete feedback. Meaning, as women, we need to constantly ask for specific examples of how we can improve when given feedback because there’s probably more than originally expressed. Enjoy your posts!

  2. LOVE hearing your perspective, Kristen!

    I absolutely see the trend towards just-in-time feedback, and couldn’t agree with you more – moving in that direction is a much bigger deal than executive leadership teams may think. If that’s the direction successful companies are heading – and I think/hope it is – leaders at the top need to put some serious thought and effort into empowering managers with support and resources, and managing the cultural shift.

    Ah, yes! I’ve read articles about that study. Inviting real, gritty, constructive feedback definitely isn’t easy. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right!?

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. This was excellent and super introspective. I had a fairly similar experience with my first performance review – I wonder if it’s part of the hazing process? – and being told that I have questionable judgement and could use some work on my professionalism because not everybody will get my humor.

    This was the first I’d heard of any of that. My boss raised issues from months before that nobody talked about. And beyond that, nobody actually complained about my lack of professionalism. If it were on comment cards or something, fine, but yeah.

    I was pissed. And then I decided to keep being me. And then we got a new boss. And then I got promoted three times in like a year.

  4. In a society where everyone is beginning to look and act the same (thank you, botox and selfies), I think a few rough edges that honor true authenticity are refreshing!

  5. This post is terrific. Very well written also. I love that in your story, as a youngster you talk about getting real time feedback but as we pursue our passion we need to get more used to that. And I love how you tie it all together with personal branding. Such a great read!

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