Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.” How can we build and maintain an excellent reputation?
What Is Reputation?
Your reputation is what other people think and say of you based on their knowledge (first hand or rumors) of you. Reputation can be based on your skill or your character, but we don’t weigh them equally. Unfortunately, the cultural discussion of character has largely fallen by the wayside. Your character forms the basis of your reputation.
Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness notes how “Cultural historian Warren Susman researched the rise and fall of the concept of character, tracing its prevalence in literature and the self-improvement manuals and guides popular in different eras. What he found is that the use of the term ‘character’ began in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th – a century, Susman writes, that embodied ‘a culture of character’.”
"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." — Abraham Lincoln
“During the 1800s, ‘character was a keyword in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans,’ and men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all. Young people were admonished to cultivate real character, high character, and noble character and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain.”
But as time went on, the cultural focus shifted to personality and self-realization over character, and I would argue that modern culture has also added skill-level to that new focus.
Reputation Is Still Primarily Based on Character
In an impersonal, big picture way, our culture has largely moved away from reputation based on character to reputation based on skill. The celebrities of our culture are notable for the level of skill that they have mastered. Professional sports players, musicians, movie stars, supermodels — they’re largely judged on their accomplishments, talents, and skill.
As long as they’re generally a “nice person,” the focus remains on their skill. But as soon as secret wrongdoings or past indiscretions are revealed (like Alexander Wang), accusations (founded or not) from others are made (like Amber Heard and Johnny Depp), or inappropriate actions/words in the moment, especially if caught on camera and shared online, come to the public’s notice, skill isn’t enough to save someone’s reputation. Bad character will destroy reputation every time.
“Glass, china, and reputation, are easily cracked, and never well mended.” — Benjamin Franklin
We might judge those far removed from us largely based on their skills, but when we’re face-to-face in personal interactions with colleagues, acquaintances, and the other people in our circles in daily life, we base our primary judgment of them on their character.
You might have a colleague who is great at closing deals, but if they’re a narcissist, then you’re not going to have a high opinion of them, and therefore their personal reputation is going to be low in your eyes. Your local coffee shop might make an insanely good cappuccino, but if the barista is rude to you, then you’re not likely to give that business a five-star review, which is a measure of their reputation.
So in our personal, daily interactions, we’re forming an opinion of other people based on their character. We take people’s reputation into consideration when deciding whether to hire them, fire them, work with them, recommend them, befriend them, etc. This means that in order to have a long-standing, good reputation you actually have to have a good character.
Follow Gigi Hadid's Example
Even the wealthy and famous can reap the benefits of cultivating a good reputation. Runway model Gigi Hadid is known in her industry as being kind, generous, and hardworking. This might be surprising to some people, considering she comes from an exceptionally wealthy LA family, and her mother was a star of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
However, Hadid credits her mother for helping her build a good reputation. Her mother always told her, "When you start working, you better be the most hardworking, nicest person in the room because if you’re not, then there’s always going to be someone prettier, nicer, and more hardworking."
How To Build a Good Reputation
Like Gigi Hadid, you can choose how your behavior at work — and in life — will form people's opinion of you. Here's what you need to do to cultivate an excellent reputation.
There’s a line in the classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout Finch’s spinster neighbor Miss Maudie comments on her father Atticus Finch’s character. Miss Maudie says, “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets.” Atticus is a genuinely good and just person in both spheres; he doesn’t have a public façade. And the people around him know that. Having this kind of wholeness in your character makes you reliable and trustworthy, and authenticity is always attractive (authentic goodness even more so). After all, a person can only keep up a façade for so long.
“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” — Socrates
Have an Excellent Work Ethic
If you say you’re going to do something, then do it. If you have deadlines, then meet them. If there are opportunities to go the extra mile, then take them. Whatever your duties are, do them to the best of your ability. Be generous and helpful to those around you. Colleagues and bosses appreciate people who pull their own weight and do a good job.
Talk Positively to and about Other People
Be polite and tactful to everyone! Saying please and thank you never go out of style. Express gratitude to those around you, and give credit where it’s due. Very importantly, don’t complain or gossip. Find something kind or positive to say, and give sincere compliments. Smile! Don’t be so focused on the task at hand that you forget that you’re dealing with people.
Have Integrity and Be Honest
Do what’s right, no matter the personal cost — this unfailingly garners respect. If you’re not honest, then you’re not trustworthy. If you’re not trustworthy, people will hesitate to work with you. Additionally, be assertive about your needs and your boundaries. And be able to admit when you’re wrong.
Be a Good Communicator
Return calls and respond to emails promptly. Be clear, organized, and thoughtful. Sending thank you notes is always a good idea. Familiarize yourself with the different ways people communicate so you can meet their communication needs and avoid misunderstandings or accidentally rubbing someone the wrong way.
“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.” — Stevie Wonder
Dress to Impress
An underestimated aspect of your reputation is your wardrobe. Clothing is often the first thing a new acquaintance will notice about you, so it's very important that your outfit gives a good impression. It's not just about dressing stylishly, but about dressing appropriately for every situation. You must understand that you'll need to dress differently for an important work presentation versus a nighttime soiree with your business contacts.
Your boss is much more likely to bring you along to an important function if they can trust that you will show up looking great and make a good impression on behalf of the company.
Manage Your Online Presence
Part of building and maintaining your reputation today is managing your online life, specifically what you post on social media. It’s easy to investigate what a potential date or potential hire is like by checking out their Twitter or Instagram.
Many businesses have made a social media check standard procedure in their interview process: “75% of U.S. companies have made an online screening a formal part of the hiring process, 85% of recruiters and HR professionals say that having a positive online reputation influences their hiring decisions, and 70% of recruiters say they have rejected candidates based on something they found about them online. And since those numbers come from a study done in 2009, they’re undoubtedly even higher now.”
Remember bad news travels fast, and people are more likely to notice and share the negative over the positive. So protect your reputation by being authentic and kind, and working hard.