SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- Google changes its logo every day with clever home page animations, but the latest iteration is more permanent. Weeks after announcing Alphabet, a new parent company, the search engine giant unveiled a new logo on Sept. 1, 2015. The timing makes sense, says professor Rajshree Agarwal, the Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “When Google was young, the startup did search and only search,” Agarwal says. “Now their mission is so much bigger, and the logo helps signal their expanded focus.”
Most aspiring leaders don't have their own logos, but they do have personal brands that require attention. “Think like the CEO of any major corporation," says Agarwal, who teaches an executive education workshop on creating your own strategic direction. Rather than just having her students go through mental exercises, Agarwal challenges them to take out a piece of paper and start writing. “Even as you’re doing it, it crystalizes things for you that were jumbled in your head,” she says. “It becomes a process of discovery.”
A formalized plan also helps people sort their priorities when strategic intent hits reality in turbulent times. “It becomes a touchpoint,” Agarwal says.
Although writing things down brings clarity, she warns about going through the process too often. “If you’re reinventing yourself every year, you’re doing something wrong,” she says. “Five years is a better horizon.” She lays out five steps to get started, with the disclaimer that the process is not always linear. “Everything is interlinked,” she says. “The lines between each step can be blurred.”
1. Reconcile your identity and image
Rather than writing a vague mission statement, start with something concrete. Agarwal has her workshop participants fill in the blank: “In five years, I am a success if _____.” This can help you define your identity — who you think you are and what you care about. Your image can be something entirely different. It's who other people think you are. “Once you establish your identity, you still have to communicate it to the rest of the world,” Agarwal says.
When your image and identity do not match, you either have a communication problem or lack of understanding about your actual strengths and weaknesses. “When they are off, then something is not meshing,” Agarwal says. “You need to pay attention to who you are, really, and what message you deliver to other people.”
2. Assemble your board
To truly understand yourself, you need feedback from reliable sources. CEOs have access to boards of directors, and individuals can create something similar. Agarwal says the ideal personal board includes people from diverse backgrounds with multiple perspectives. “Ask for insights from superiors, subordinates and peers,” Agarwal says. “And make sure these are people you can trust to be objective.”
You don’t need naysayers who tear you down all the time. But you also don’t need “yes” people who simply tell you what you want to hear. “You need a balance,” Agarwal says.
3. Analyze your push and pull factors
Once you know who you are and how other people perceive your brand, you need to determine your resources and abilities. Agarwal says the process starts with an inward look at your strengths and weaknesses, and an outward survey of your opportunities and threats — the classic SWOT analysis. Converting these four columns into a winning strategy requires a keen eye for the push and pull factors that emerge.
Push factors stem from your weaknesses and threats. When you detect internal deficiencies in your portfolio of abilities — or when you detect external forces that threaten to leave you behind if you stand still — then you are pushed to react. “When your weaknesses and threats align, these are your grand challenges,” Agarwal says.
Pull factors stem from your strengths and opportunities. When you catch yourself underutilizing your strengths — or when you recognize opportunities that you can seize more effectively or quickly than anyone else — then you know the time is right to pull yourself forward. “When your strengths and opportunities align, this represents your low-hanging fruit,” Agarwal says.
4. Chart your path forward
Deciding which push and pull factors to focus on first requires an awareness of opportunity cost. Time spent correcting a weakness, for example, means less time for leveraging a strength. So which direction do you point your feet?
Agarwal suggests reviewing your five-year goals, and then looking at the problem from the viewpoint of your “buyers.” These could be your supervisors, clients or potential employers. “What are the features you offer? And how do they benefit your buyers?” she says.
Sustained competitive advantage comes when you focus on the factors most relevant to others, most uncommon, and most difficult to imitate. Think about a world-class athlete like Lebron James. He might be a good cook or funny comedian, but his real competitive advantage comes from his relevant, rare and hard to imitate ability to put a basketball through the hoop. Use the chart below to determine your own path forward.
5. Spend your resources
Knowing your direction and having a clear message to communicate to others won’t bring results without implementation. “It’s just a piece of paper until you put it into action,” Agarwal says.
To achieve anything worthwhile, she says, a person must invest resources that are irreversible or significant. Going back to school for an MBA, learning Spanish, or quitting your job to start an entrepreneurial venture would be three examples of meaningful investment.
As you move forward, stay focused on your goals without becoming so rigid that you fail to adjust to new information. “Refine in the margins,” Agarwal tells her workshop participants.