You Have Only One Chance to Make a First Impression

To have a successful career, whether as a working professional or a business owner, now, more than ever, you must approach your life as a business and see yourself as a brand. You have to market yourself, your abilities, and your knowledge just as you would any product or service. Above all else, you have to value your brand–that is, your reputation–as it is perceived by those you have relationships with–your colleagues, customers, clients, family, and community. Business and professional success is not just about whom you know, but who knows you, and what they believe about you. Whether you’re selling computer software for a major corporation, teaching at a public high school, or selling shoes at the local mall, your real and most important product is yourself. Those who dismiss or ignore this fundamental truth will pay a high price, both financially and otherwise, regardless of their chosen profession or industry.

All of this was brought starkly into view as domestic violence by pro athletes dominated the news as the new football season began. The initially poor and less-than-credible response on the part of their respective teams and the NFL didn’t help. Needless to say, the athletes involved are paying a high price–professionally, financially, and personally–following the revelation of their conduct and the resulting damage to their reputations, beginning with the loss of employment and endorsement income. The athletes, the teams, and the NFL placed a higher value on image and popularity than they did on integrity and reputation–until they were exposed. The easy thing to do is to accuse and condemn the violators. But the smart thing to do is an integrity check on your own conduct, habits, beliefs, and treatment of others. Is your personal brand intact, or is it threatened by your choices? Are you putting your own success, ambitions, and earning power at risk?

A common characteristic of most scandals that destroy careers, companies, and fortunes is quite basic and one I do not tolerate in myself or anyone else: lying. As the NFL’s unfolding drama demonstrated, sometimes it seems there is an epidemic of lies and deceit in the business world. Every week someone else is exposed who has lied on a résumé, betrayed the public trust, or destroyed an institution, a company, or an entire industry because of fraud and deception. Maybe you won’t get caught in a lie, but odds are you will–especially in this age of camera phones, social media, and omnipresent surveillance–and the effects can be devastating to your business, career, and earning potential. I have one rule for those who lie or steal: There is no second chance. My rationale is simple: If someone lies to me once, they will lie again. They have destroyed their reputation–my perception of the integrity of their brand–beyond repair.

Image is not everything, but reputation and integrity are. Don’t wait until your reputation and integrity are damaged or lost to recognize this. Whether you are a star athlete, a powerful executive, an ambitious entrepreneur, or a newly minted college graduate, building an authentic and valued reputation takes investments of time, planning, education, training, and effort. It is your job to protect and maintain those investments, because they determine your value in the marketplace. You have only one chance to make a first impression, and it can take a lifetime, in the eyes of some, to change it. And just as fame and popularity are no protection against scandal, neither is anonymity–you are just one security video away from being famous for all the wrong reasons. Reputation management is no longer a priority for only celebrities and their publicists.

Regularly take a hard, honest look in the mirror. Confront and change habits, behaviors, and beliefs that are self-destructive, deceitful, illegal, or that threaten the safety and security of others–even if you once deemed such behaviors socially acceptable and no big deal. If addressing your issues is more than you can handle on your own, get professional help–whatever the cost to your ego or your finances. The price of a secret life suddenly exposed is far more than the cost of correcting the behavior, and is nearly always more than you and those in relationships with you can afford to pay.

When all is said and done, your reputation is your responsibility. Both anonymity and popularity are false protection against exposure–and resulting damage–from inappropriate conduct and sudden scandal. Once destroyed, a great reputationcan be incredibly costly to rebuild. Vigilantly protect the brand–and the business–of YOU.