Karen Branding: Keeping the competitive edge in the career marathon

  • January 4, 2019
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 2 minute read

We’d like to think it’s a straight path, but it’s more like a marathon. Your career is a long winding course with people cheering you on. But ultimately, it’s all on you.

—Karen Branding, senior vice president of public affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Branding helped round out this semester’s Women and Leadership series by giving the class some life perspective. One’s career is more than just a straight climb to the top. There are going to be setbacks and “hills.” However, Branding believes anyone can successfully cross the finish line if they keep three lessons in mind: strategic relevance, great personal branding, and persistence. 

Strategic relevance

According to Branding, achieving a strategic edge for a business positions it for more success than other organizations. Even broader, a personal strategic edge will keep you relevant throughout your career. It’s important to continuously ask yourself, “What gives me an edge?”

Branding explains that one’s competitive edge will constantly change throughout a “marathon,” which is why it’s important to adapt, create, and recognize your changing advantage.

Branding cautions, “we’re all on a slow path to irrelevance,” citing Polaroid as an example. While they were too busy focusing on their past competitive advantage, they allowed themselves to fall behind in the digital space. Polaroid wasn’t focusing on what Branding refers to as their “opportunity gap.” It’s important for people to focus on their own opportunity gap, looking to how they’ll compete in the future and transfer current skills.

Personal branding

Personal Branding - classroom photoIn order to create a promising personal brand, you must first practice self-awareness. Branding recommends seeking out what others think of you, especially if you can get information from trusted advisors.

In order to do so, find mentors and coaches. Branding notes that it’s easy to get caught up in finding a formal mentor, but “mentoring moments” are just as important. It’s much easier to ask someone you admire for a piece of advice during lunch than have them take on the lifelong commitment of mentoring. In living up to your personal brand, it’s essential to be a team player; you must lead with integrity and collaborate well with others.

In terms of Branding’s personal brand, what stood out to me was her incredible vulnerability. As she reflected on her career thus far, she opened up about how her career had affected her personal life and vice versa. In creating a personal brand, over everything, you must be yourself.


“Leap and the net will appear,” Branding said, quoting John Burroughs. Branding taught the class that we can only keep learning and growing if we’re not afraid to try new things. Throughout Branding’s setbacks, both personal and professional, her common theme was persistence.

If you keep running, you will eventually get to the top of the hill. Branding’s marathon metaphor gave a class of mainly young women embarking on their careers the perspective they need to leap.

About the Author

Washington University in Saint Louis

WashU Olin Business School

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