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Death of a Salesman
by Margaret Heffernan

Don't think about your career; think about your reputation.

“I’m still feeling kind of temporary about myself,” says salesman Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman. With Miller’s death recently, there was much eulogizing of his work – but few people seemed to notice with what prescience Miller had written about the changing shape of business. The play, after all, was written in 1949 – a full fifty years before the shell-shocked recognition of just how temporary our working lives had become. We now know that we live in a world where companies are built like tents, in which work and careers have to be movable, flexible and, yes, temporary.

When we call this entrepreneurship or enterprise, we celebrate our liberation from domineering, faceless corporations. Our lives no longer feel so dependent on the whim of a boss, the vicissitudes of corporate strategizing. We can pack up our talent and make our own destiny. We have choices too.

And yet, however positive the spin we put on careers that average twenty jobs in a lifetime, we know that, even as entrepreneurs, we are still at the mercy of economic cycles, market whims and consumer fads. Yes, sometimes it gives us a sense of freedom. But sometimes it makes us feel just as uneasy as Willy Loman.

In a business world where millions can be wiped off market values in a matter of minutes, is there any permanence to be found? I think that there is. And I’m surprised by how often it’s overlooked – or how late it is discovered. The permanence in business lies in reputation.

Your reputation is built the first day you start working. It develops with every phone call you make, every ally, every negotiation. Every detail of every relationship combines to form one big reputation. And while the business world may be a big place, your industry and your company are surprisingly parochial. Sooner or later, everyone finds out who can be relied on, who delivers on time, on budget – and who does not.

When I went to the US, after years of working in the UK, I was introduced to a woman who in American television. “Oh I know you,” she said, “you’re the one who went to bat for ….” She recounted an episode in my career some two years earlier when I’d championed the cause of a small production company against an all-powerful broadcaster. We hadn’t won – but some one had told the story who some one who’d told the story – until it travelled all the way from London to Boston.

Your reputation is the permanent part of your working life. Think of it as an asset. Invest in it and make sure it continues to grow. Protect it, as you would any asset, and keep it away from companies, people or deals that devalue it. Walking into the room with a great reputation is, literally, like walking into the room with money in the bank: it gives you leverage. By the same token, trying to negotiate when you have a poor reputation is walking into the room in debt; it’s hard to be convincing.

Reputations are personal brands – but in small or new businesses, your personal reputation and the company brand need to be aligned. If they’re not, neither will be credible. The reason Branson and Virgin are both great brands is because the person and the products are the same: edgy, adventurous, challenging. So your reputation, and your company’s brand, need to be thought of together. One asset reinforces the other. Both add value to the business.

It’s worth thinking about this deliberately because, on some level, a reputation won’t lie. New businesses inevitably take on many of the qualities of their founder – both good and bad. If you have a reputation for being reliable and scrupulous, your business will start to absorb that reputation too. If, on the other hand, you’re a little fuzzy on details and not too concerned about the letter of your agreements, your business brand will turn flaky. You can spend as much as you like on logos and advertising: what people believe is the person they see and the experience you give them.

Perhaps the moment at which you best understand the power of reputation is when your company goes under. Nowadays, everyone understands that lots of new businesses fail, and that failure is how we all learn. So closing your company doesn’t need to tarnish your reputation – it can even enhance it. When I closed my last business in the US, I did so early enough that I had the money to pay vendors and give employees time to find new jobs. Far from damaging my reputation, the way we shut down enhanced it. And put me in a far stronger position when I was ready to start again.

Jobs, bosses, companies, sometimes even whole industries may come and go. But reputations live on forever. So, on those days when you might be feeling kind of temporary about yourself, think about your reputation. If you’ve made the right moves, it may make you feel just a little more permanent.

Copyright Margaret Heffernan. All Rights Reserved.

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