Skip to content

Personal branding: we may cringe, but it works

The writer is the author of ‘How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking’

The only expression in working life guaranteed to make anyone cringe even more than “networking” must be “personal brand”. Like networking, a personal brand is something we are told we should be cultivating. But most of us don’t, because we are embarrassed.

So are we missing a trick? With the economy and work trends in a state of flux, it is tempting to think that a professional makeover might be just the ticket. LinkedIn is awash with it: “Improve Your Personal Branding.” “Gain an audience by sharing a relatable journey.” “Optimize your LinkedIn presence.” A lot of the advice, however, is either obvious or labour-intensive.

Perhaps the word “brand” needs a rebrand. When people talk about the nebulous term “personal brand”, they are really talking about two distinct things: (a) professional reputation and (b) visibility.

Visibility is about what you are seen to do and how you come across. Reputation is about what you actually do and the impact it has. You can fake brand to a certain extent; you cannot fake professional reputation.

Reputation is built around the exercise of your values, and it is built one conversation at a time, one project at a time. Reputation involves graft and tenacity. A brand makeover can be bought. Long-term reputation-building is priceless.

Visibility, on the other hand, or its absence, becomes a statement as to where you fit in. Are you part of the old guard or the new guard? Are you a disrupter or a traditionalist? The answer is not obvious. In some industries being a “best-kept secret” is valuable: the right people know who you are and what you do. To “brand” yourself would be a mistake. In other industries, it pays to be a self-promoter. You need to make a judicious evaluation of the norms of your industry and where you want to fit within them.

If you decide that “visibility” is what you are looking for, then you have an easy task, if a busy one. Fastest fix? Increase your social media engagement. Set a fixed, regular slot where you can be found, whether it’s a 60-second twice-weekly video or a daily post. This appointment must be manageable, and something you want to do and continue doing. Frequency and authenticity are more important than minutely planned excellence. Save minutely planned excellence for your current career.

Most of all, though, think about why you are doing this. What’s the point? If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, you’re wasting your time. Possible goals could be: using social media for networking instead of going to lots of face-to-face events; wanting to be more visible to see what difference—if any—it makes in your career; getting your name out there because you might want to move on. Keep monitoring the results and tweaking your efforts. Keep asking: “What result am I trying to achieve? Is it working?”

Other visibility tricks? Volunteer for chairing and speaking opportunities. Be the person who gives a speech when it’s a colleague’s birthday, even if it’s a virtual meeting. Organize a mini-conference for your department where everyone gives a two-minute ad-libbed presentation on “What no one understands about my job”. Putting yourself on the line in some way and taking a risk is a more useful visibility than insisting on having the biggest photo in the company newsletter.

I often see people embrace the idea of ​​“branding” because they think it will help them avoid all the messy stuff at work like negotiation, disappointment, misunderstanding and failure. But these things are unavoidable, no matter how strong your “personal brand”. Cultivate the following instruction instead: “Teach people how to treat you.”

Most of us need to develop the ability to set boundaries — for ourselves and for others — more than we need to be a “brand”. So by all means, be a brand if you must. But you could save yourself time and energy by identifying the occasions where it would make a difference if you said “no” more often — and where a “yes” could change everything. The first place to start? Make a decision about whether or not to bother without something like a personal brand. And then lean hard into that decision.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.