“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” — Benjamin Franklin
Robert John Downey Jr. enjoyed great success in the early years of his career. But then it began to fall apart. From 1996 through 2001, he was arrested numerous times on charges related to drugs.
After five years of substance abuse, arrests, rehab, and relapse, Downey finally began to work toward a full recovery, investing in his career, and rebuilding his reputation. Now, he is the poster child for a career comeback.
He’s maintained his sobriety since 2003. It’s hard not to think of him when you picture the Marvel film franchise and Iron Man.
"It’s really not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems. What’s hard is to decide to do it.” — Robert John Downey Jr.
Most people won’t experience such a spectacular fall from grace in the public eye. But, many of us will experience a setback that impacts our reputation at some point in our careers.
It can be due to something small, such as missing a project deadline. Now, your reputation for reliability is a little tarnished. You’ll have to prove that you can get things back on track and be trusted again.
Your setback could also be somewhat larger. Perhaps you made a serious mistake at work, and you were fired. Now, you’re trying to figure out how to rebuild your reputation so you can land a new job and have a fresh start.
No one is perfect. We all make mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes damage our reputation. It happens.
But you can’t wait and hope that it will all blow over and go away. It’s much better to take action to actively repair your reputation as quickly as possible.
Assess the impact
What are you dealing with? What is actually going on versus what you think is happening?
If you’re somewhat paranoid, like I am, you often worry that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings or done something wrong. When you hear whispers in the hallway, you think people might be talking about you. When someone acts a little strange, you jump to conclusions and assume the worst.
Oh, that’s only me? Ok. I’m glad you never feel that way. It’s not fun.
“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” ― Joseph Heller
However, sometimes those little shifts in behavior do mean something. You did something wrong, and it has negatively impacted your reputation in the company.
You start to notice that you’re not being assigned the best projects anymore. You’re not being invited to the meetings you would expect. You get passed over for a promotion you were certain you deserved.
In the best situation, someone will come right out and tell you that you screwed up. Your boss might tell you exactly what went wrong and the impact (e.g., being put on probation).
Unfortunately, in some companies and cultures, people won’t be as direct with you. So, the burden is on you to dig deeper, talk with people, be direct and honest, accept feedback without becoming defensive, and get to the bottom of it.
It’s hard to fix the situation and do what’s necessary to rebuild your reputation if you don't fully understand what happened and how much damage it has done.
Understand and own your mistakes
Be honest and take ownership of the mistakes you know you made. People will respect you more when you step up and claim responsibility rather than denying, deflecting, or blaming others.
If you don’t understand where things went wrong, dig into the situation to find out why your reputation took a hit:
Is there an incorrect perception that it was your fault?
Did someone misunderstand something that you said or did?
Was someone else at fault but passed the blame onto you?
Did you actually make a mistake but were unaware of it?
Figure out what happened, why, and what role you played. One way or the other, get to the bottom of the situation. Shine a light on everything to uncover the facts.
I often see that a reputation-damaging situation boils down to one or more of the following:
If you were falsely accused, that needs to come out so you can clear your name. But, if you actually did make the mistake, said the words, or engaged in the behavior, step up and own it.
Once you understand what you’re dealing with and its implications (e.g., you are at risk of being fired), it’s time for immediate damage control. Accept responsibility, sincerely apologize, and explain how you will make it right.
You want to turn things around as quickly as possible. You also want to demonstrate remorse and show that you won’t let those same mistakes happen again.
As a manager, I can tell you that I looked for three key indicators that employees were coachable and able to get back on the right track after something went wrong:
They accepted feedback, were honest, and took responsibility for their mistake.
They had a strategy and created a plan to recover from a mistake and avoid it in the future.
They took action, fixed the issue, and their future performance demonstrated that they had learned from their mistakes.
Rebuild your reputation
It won’t be easy, but what other choice do you have? Getting ahead in your career is already challenging. It’s even harder with a damaged reputation.
Develop a strategy and create a plan to rebuild your credibility and regain trust. Start executing your plan and pay attention to how you operate every day.
Define the professional brand and reputation you want.
Seek a coach or advisor if you need help. Sometimes a boss isn’t a big help here (e.g., they may be part of the problem).
Create a plan that outlines how you will rebuild it.
Make commitments you know you can keep.
Communicate every step of the way.
Course-correct when necessary.
Consistently deliver on your commitments.
Treat others with respect at all times.
Consistently behave in ways that reinforce your reputation.
Consistently speak in ways that strengthen your professional brand.
Monitor your progress to stay on track.
It helps to get feedback from a trusted friend who can observe you in a work context. Or, you can share honest stories with a trusted advisor. An outside perspective lets you know how things are going.
“A good reputation is more valuable than money.” — Publilius Syrus
This week, I’ve been talking with my premium subscribers about defining their professional brands. All too often, we let our reputation and professional brand be created organically. They just “happen.”
However, your reputation is too valuable to leave to fate. Instead, take control and intentionally craft your strategy to strengthen and protect it, just as you would with any valuable asset.
Does it sound silly to think of your reputation as your most valuable professional asset? Well, in some cases, it can be worth millions and millions of dollars.
I know people who damaged their reputation, lost their job, and were permanently barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company ever again. Guess how much that will cost you in terms of your lifetime earning potential?
Factor in the reduction of base salary, bonuses, and stock, and we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars lost over decades.
Ouch. It’s not worth it.
Take control of your reputation and guard it fiercely.
“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” — Warren Buffett
If this happens to you, I know that you’ll wish things can just return to normal as soon as possible. You want people to forgive and forget.
But it doesn’t work that way. People have long memories. Some will be waiting for you to trip and fall again.
Be patient with yourself. Be patient with them.
Your actions will speak louder than promises.
Show the work ethic, behavior, and success that built your reputation in the first place. It will take time, but every win and positive interaction with you will rebuild your reputation brick by brick.
If you remember the time that Downey was returning to the big screen, people were skeptical. Many were expecting him to fail and relapse. But, he kept going.
He stayed sober. He stayed out of jail. He kept working, delivering solid performances, and landing better roles.
Now, people don't look at him and see a drug addict. They see a confident man who has built a new and improved reputation. They don’t remember his failures. They remember him as Tony Stark and Iron Man.
This week’s professional development challenge
⭐ Define your professional brand
A professional brand is your work reputation. It is built by the quality of your work and how you get things done. It is reinforced by your words, communication style, behavior, and interaction with others. How do you want to be viewed by your professional peers?
Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who runs a supportive online community. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.