When Google was young, the technology company did one thing well. It helped people on desktop computers search the Internet.
Customers have different needs today as technology evolves, and Google has changed to keep pace. Weeks after announcing a new parent company called Alphabet, the search engine giant unveiled a new logo this month that helps signal a broader mission.
Most aspiring leaders don’t have their own logos, but they do have personal brands that require similar adjustment. If you think of yourself as the chief executive of your own enterprise, you can learn lessons from Google’s ability to stay relevant in turbulent times.
Rather than just going through a mental exercise, you should take out a piece of paper and start writing. Creating a tangible document becomes a process of discovery, allowing ideas to crystalize that otherwise would stay jumbled in your head.
A formalized plan also serves as a touchstone. If you refer to the document often, it can help you remember your priorities when strategic intent hits reality in a world full of chaos and distractions.
Here are five steps to get started, with the disclaimer that the process is not always linear. Each step is interlinked, and the lines can be blurred.
1. Reconcile your identity and image
Rather than writing a vague mission statement, start with something more concrete. I have my MBA students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business fill in the blank: “In five years, I am a success if _____.”
This can help you define your identity, the person you think you are. Your image can be something entirely different. It’s what other people think about you. Remember, once you create your identity, you still have to communicate it to the rest of the world.
When your image and identity don’t match, you either have a communication problem or lack of understanding about your actual strengths and weaknesses. So you need to pay attention to who you really are, 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 you can create something similar for yourself.
The ideal personal board includes people from diverse backgrounds with multiple perspectives. Get input from superiors, subordinates and peers, 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.
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.
The process starts with an inward look at your strengths and weaknesses, and an outward survey of your opportunities and threats. 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.
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.
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?
Start by reviewing your five-year goals, and then look at the problem from the viewpoint of your “buyers.” These could be your supervisors, clients or potential employers. Ask yourself: “What features do I offer? And how do they benefit my buyers?”
Sustained competitive advantage comes when you focus on the factors most relevant to your buyer, those characteristics that are most difficult for others 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.
5. Spend your resources
Knowing your direction and having a clear message to communicate to others won’t bring results without implementation.
To achieve anything worthwhile, you must invest resources that are 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, try to stay focused on your goals without becoming so rigid that you fail to adjust to new information. This does not mean you need to reinvent yourself every year. A better approach is to set your strategy and then refine in the margins.
Google still does Internet search. But the company offers more than it did five years ago. And you should too.
Rajshree Agarwal is director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.