What's In a Name?

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Could a career be helped or hindered by an aspect of personal branding that almost no one chooses for themselves - their name?

I had this thought after stumbling across an investment firm's announcement that it hired one Amy Doberman as general counsel. I don't mean to sound silly, and I mean no disrespect for Ms. Doberman or her employer. But my knee-jerk response was, a company could do worse than have its chief legal officer named Doberman. (If the role were HR director, not so good...)

I'm not alone. "I bet when she was with the SEC her investigation targets felt the same way," suggested one colleague.

Name Change and Ethnicity

In generations past, first- or second-generation Americans often legally changed their names to efface an ethnic origin. A co-worker in one of my first jobs once explained how her father, a writer, changed his name to the ethnically neutral "Gilbert" circa 1950 because his obviously Jewish name blocked him from finding work.

While ethnic background isn't supposed to be a handicap today, personal branding concerns can drive similar decisions. After all: If a strong personal brand is critical to career success, must fit into 100 bytes or less, and your name is inescapably linked to your brand, then surely it's worth asking as Shakespeare's Juliet did, "What's in a name?"

I recall a conversation I overheard (eavesdropped, really) in an Upper East Side restaurant many years ago. A recent law school graduate was explaining to her friend how she'd felt compelled to change both first and last name to land a job. Although she'd ranked high in her class, one classmate after another got scooped up while she continued to languish with nary an offer. She concluded her family name was making her too difficult for decision-makers to pigeonhole. (Even the first name, Taren, confused most new contacts. Just try introducing yourself to anyone and having them get that right on the first try - no matter how clearly you enunciate it.)

Apparently it's critical (or was around 1990) that a law firm know a candidate's ethnicity before making an offer. According to that fledgling lawyer, law firms in New York seemed to divide among Irish, WASP, Italian and Jewish. She was Jewish but it wasn't evident from her name. Of course, no employer dared ask.

All I'm doing here is raising a possibility to chew over. I certainly wouldn't suggest that anyone go out and change their name to a more marketable one. But in this day and age when over-the-top branding tactics have become commonplace, it might be happening already. As my own early-career role model, the late great Hunter S. Thompson, once wrote: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

So, reversing the path my ex-colleague's father had taken some 40 years earlier, Taren went before a judge and rebranded herself with a "nice Jewish name" - and got hired right away. There was a downside, though. Although she evidently felt empowered by her name change, it discomforted many of her friends. Some informally boycotted the new moniker, defiantly continuing to address her by the name she had cast off.

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