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Blog: Here's what a roomful of (mostly) strangers said about me

Friday, November 10, 2017   (0 Comments)
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By Ka Yan Ng

There were a lot of eyes staring at me. My mind was racing: Should I try to make eye contact with a friend for support? Am I slouching? Where were my hands? Am I smiling? What was going to happen next?

I straightened my spine slightly as I stood facing my classmates. When the facilitator asked for a volunteer for “an experiment”, my hand shot up. Better to volunteer than be volun-told, I thought to myself.

What happened next was eye-opening.

My fellow classmates were all asked to write one word to describe me. Twenty five people, most of whom I hadn't yet had a conversation with directly, looked me up and down and took their pens to their Post-Its. I was to write one word about myself on my own sticky note.  

The facilitator collected the little yellow squares. As he read each word out, I was to spend no time analyzing the word. I was instructed to simply say "yes" or "no" of the judgment assessment of my peers.

In the Yes column, I agreed to the words: brave, eager, friendly, risk-taker, professional, communicative, sweet, intellectual, approachable, smart/nerdy, outgoing, good promoter, and award-winning. And Chinese.

In the No column, I shook my head and protested the words: confident, strict, organized, and serious (this word came up more times than any other).

My own word: engaging. (I panicked and so I described myself as how I like to think of how my communications work comes across. In hindsight, I would have chosen a word like quiet or calm to describe myself).

This was one of the exercises at the Ascend Canada Executive Insight Series workshop, a leadership course designed to help pan-Asian professionals to embrace a leadership framework to drive their success and a solid development and learning opportunity that came my way. This particular module, Your Personal Brand, was about how other people's perceptions determine your brand and what we can do to earn and market ourselves.

It was a fascinating exercise that took place shortly after lunch. I had spent the morning taking notes and listening intently to the discussion about why there are so few Asians at the top. I had lobbed a few ideas into the discussion here and there as I was consciously trying to step outside of my comfort zone of speaking in large groups (Note: my definition of a large group is more than 1 or 2 people at a time.) The class talked about how the stereotypical brand of "Asian" is: intelligent, hard-working, high academic achievement, and technically accomplished, but poor communicators and definitely not leaders. Everything the class discussed as reasons predictably fell into several buckets: stereotypes, a glass ceiling, office politics, cultural limitations and what amounts to "nobody asked me." But those are self-imposed barriers and in the moment where I was standing before the class, it was supposed to help us break down some of these barriers. 

What this personal branding exercise reinforced for me was the importance of first impressions, what we knowingly (or unwittingly) present to the world, with a side helping of unconscious bias. It made me think about how someone on the other side of the room could form an opinion of me without ever exchanging a word with me, how actions -- or inactions -- are remembered. Luckily, the words used to describe me were overwhelmingly positive (first mover advantage in this case?). The words I said "no" to aren't how I necessarily view myself, but certainly I have moments where I am all those things. How do we market our personal brand in the workplace? It boils down to being visible. Five ideas to cultivate your brand:

  • Step up: sign up for an extra project, take on a tough assignment that others avoid (but do it smartly), volunteer for cross-functional task forces.

  • Nurture your network: with friends, colleagues, clients, managers, mentors, advocates (yes, go to the networking sessions even if you'd rather do anything else).

  • Make a significant contribution that other recognize, then move on to another project

  • Make your successes known.

  • Do something in the community: teach a class, volunteer to organize events at non-profits, participate in panels/speak at conferences.

What other tips do you have to increase your visibility?  

Ka Yan Ng is Director of Communications for Ascend Canada.  Got a story idea, an issue to debate, or want to share an experience of your own? Contact her at

about Ascend

Ascend Canada was founded in 2012 to enhance the presence, visibility and influence of current and future Pan-Asian business leaders. Today, with the support of our more than 3,000 members and numerous corporate partners, our objectives are to develop the full potential of our members by leveraging our networks and providing programs and events that inspire, as well as educate. 

Vision: To have a diverse and inclusive Canada where pan-Asian talent can achieve its full potential.

Mission: Partner and progress with Canadian Organizations to develop and advance pan-Asian talent.

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