Recently I met with a former chief financial officer interested in exploring new opportunities. I asked him what he thought his brand was and his face wrinkled up with a little bit of disdain. He told me that he thought branding himself had an ick factor, that he didn’t want to have a personal brand because it seemed arrogant and pushy. Puzzled, I told him that he already had a brand, whether he wanted to or not.
When it comes to your personal brand, you represent yourself all day, every day. If you don’t brand yourself first, someone else will. There is very little difference, thanks to social media, between the “work” you and the “real” you. Everyone sees and believes they know what appears to be the full package and sum total of you, even if their perception is not your reality.
More to the point, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon said, “It’s what people say about you when you leave the room.” It’s the feeling they get when they are around you and their impression of you includes your compassion as a human being in addition to your occupation and expertise.
I want to stress that managing your brand is not about creating some fake persona, it’s about managing perception. It allows people to see who you really are and what sets you apart. This is particularly important if you work in what I call “homogenous industries.” Those are the service and consulting industries with thousands of people offering the exact same service such as real estate agents, financial service representatives, attorneys, insurance agents etc. In these industries, you are the product - so how do you distinguish yourself?
If price and quality for the services you provide are relatively the same in your industry, what makes you unique? Personal stories that reflect your values are the differentiator. They show me your personal strengths, passions and sense of purpose. They make you relatable allowing me to experience your humanity. They attract me to you and breed loyalty when I discover common interests and values.
We know about great success stories because they stand out from the crowd. The people in the stories may not have skills or talents greater than you, but they communicate the stories and values that resonate with others. When I think of Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai, I think of peacemakers; Mother Theresa an advocate for the poor or forgotten, Steve Jobs as innovative and Elizabeth Warren as audacious. As Maya Angelou put it, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The term “personal branding” is believed to have originally appeared in an article in Fast Company Magazine, where Tom Peter’s stated, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the Brand YOU.” In the transparent and digital world that we live in today, this analogy appears more important than ever.
Often, when we describe ourselves, we default to a litany of skills that we have acquired through education or job experience. When I read your resume, I may have a clear understanding of what you do but it is unlikely that I will feel like I know you. What are you most proud of that you can take credit of and why? What reputational values are important to you? What would you like to be known for, no matter how grandiose or far-fetched it may seem today?
Your life experiences result in the very values that act as your guideposts and boundaries. They reflect the things that mean the most to you. Clarifying your values allows you to expertly articulate why and how you will lead your team, provide for your clients, support a potential employer, or advocate for a cause. Most importantly, it allows you to concisely and confidently respond to the question everyone needs an answer to: “Why You?”
The act of personal branding is no different than the path a business would take to determine how their products or services sit with their customer base or how a human resource department ensures their employer brand is resonating with potential recruits. If perception doesn’t feel like the truth of who you are, now is the time to act. Begin to create experiences that show you care and then communicate those experiences both online and offline. You can show your actions by joining boards of organizations that interest you, with pictures on your website, interviews on podcast interviews, speeches, teaching classes etc.
There are thousands of people that have your talent and skills. What they don’t have is the unique combination of life experiences, stories and values that make you uniquely you. If clients or organizations are looking for someone with that combination and you have not shown your authentic brand to the world, they simply can’t find you. You have just lost your competitive edge and the chance to show how remarkable you truly are!