Whether you like it or not, you have a personal brand--a set of perceptions that the people you work with or hope to work with have of you. Taking control of that image can help you reach your most ambitious career goals. Ignoring it can wind up holding you back.

When the people you work with or hope to work with think about you, who do they think you are? What would they say are your most important skills? What is your work personality? How would someone else describe your personal brand? 

You should have answers to all these questions, answers that make you happy and serve your career goals. If you don't, you need to work to change that. This advice comes from Wendy Capland, executive coach to such companies as IBM and Bank of America. Capland is the author of the bestselling book Your Next Bold Moveand she's also my coach. For the past several years, she's been coaching me and I've been writing about it.

"What's your personal brand? It's your reputation, the way that others perceive you, and of course the way you perceive yourself," Capland says. "It differentiates you in a crowded marketplace. It's your image, and it's better to create your own image of how you want to be seen than to let other people define it for you."

That image is an essential career tool, she explains. "Everybody needs to be clear about what their brand is so they can create how others see them and how they want to be known. It helps people know how to find you, how to hire you, and how to promote you. It helps them understand how to consider opportunities that might be right for you."

Not sure how to create your own personal brand or even what your brand already is? Don't worry. Capland offers some straightforward steps for creating a personal brand that will help boost your career:

1. Ask others how they see you.

If you don't know what your personal brand already is, the easiest way to find out is to ask people who know you, Capland says. Select several people who know you in a professional context, perhaps as many as 10 of them. Include people who know you in many different capacities--employees, bosses (if you have any), customers who know you well, colleagues on boards or in trade associations, your counterparts at other companies. Tell them you need their help, and ask: "If I have a personal brand, what do you think it is?"

If you ask enough people this question, chances are you'll see some overlap in their answers. Another good way to get a sense of your existing brand is to Google yourself, Capland says. "Search engines pull together the stuff about you." Another option is to hire a branding expert, something Capland did while writing her book.

2. Adjust if necessary.

You may be happy with the way people perceive your brand already, especially if you've been smart about what projects you take on, how you communicate to customers and colleagues and so on. Or, if you're not entirely happy with your existing brand, make changes. One way to start is to ask for projects and tasks that fit the brand you're trying to create. "When I was younger and building my professional profile, I didn't often work with executives, but every time I did, I knew I wanted to do more of it," Capland recalls. "So every opportunity I had, I would tell my boss that what I really wanted to do was learn how to work with executives and do leadership development." Taking courses and getting certifications, joining a trade association or shadowing someone who does the kind of work you want to do are all good ways of shifting your brand. 

Whatever you do, when adjusting your personal brand, be yourself. "It has to be genuine, it has to be you or else no one will believe you," Capland says.

3. Align everything with one simple message.

Creating a personal brand isn't a one-shot effort. Developing and maintaining a personal brand is an ongoing process, Capland says. It will help a lot if you come up with your key message, a simple phrase that expresses your brand, what you do, and what you value. Then make sure those words are included in all your public-facing communications, such as your social media profiles, your author bio in anything you write, your attribution if you're quoted in the media, your website, and so on. Your brand should extend to what you wear and how you present yourself. For example if innovation and challenging the status quo are part of your brand, it might not make sense to show up in a suit and tie. 

4. Resist the impulse to be all things to all people.

One of the seeming pitfalls of creating a personal brand is that it may feel like you're missing opportunities. For Capland, for example, defining herself as an executive coach meant giving up jobs coaching middle managers. "That is some people's greatest fear," she says. "What if there is all this other opportunity and hardly any opportunity that matches my brand?" It can be scary to pass on customers or jobs that don't precisely fit the brand you're trying to create, but it's usually worth it in the long run. "I've found that is true--it does knock you out of some things," Capland says. "But it also helps people know how to find you and hire you and that is a bigger advantage than the opportunity you gave up."