Recently, I was approached by a colleague on LinkedIn who asked if I had any specific “do and don’t” personal branding advice for the UK College grads he works with. My first impulse was to refer him to several of the past posts I’ve written, and invite him to share those.
Yet, it occurred to me he was providing a fresh opportunity to revisit my thinking, and share my perspectives. After all, my views and work as a “personal brand” strategist tend to be different than those of the many other people who advise on personal branding. And the key difference is this: While I value the discovery process I use, I think it’s an error to conceive of oneself as a brand or to go down the road of creating a personal brand.
Fundamentally, a brand is a reputation, and as such is made up of the shared opinions and beliefs about you. While you can influence your reputation, you cannot create it. Rather, you earn it by virtue of what you become known for. For example, Apple founders did not set out to brand the company as innovative; they simply innovated with a commitment to great design and user friendliness.
Lesson: Determine what you’re committed to, and then pursue it. Your reputation, or brand, will emerge over time.
Start with figuring out who you are, including your own unique set of attributes, beliefs, talents, story, and purpose. Then determine how to show up for the people you aim to serve. Put another way, to stand out in a way that matters, you need to develop your credibility and visibility.
Here, then, are two sets of ideas for establishing credibility and for achieving visibility. In each set, there is some overlap, and the ideas are presented in no particular order. In fact, the process is not so much linear as it is recursive. Still, it generally makes sense to start with becoming credible, and then move on to becoming visible.
Credibility: Being Who You Are
Be Clear About What You Stand For. Your actions and words are what define you in the eyes of others. How you behave is influenced by your own deeply held values and beliefs. Unfortunately, we aren’t always directly in touch with what those are. Without critical self-examination, you risk getting caught up in the beliefs and behaviors of others. Yet, true power over your destiny is rooted in personal clarity. Let’s face it, the ancient Greeks admonished “Know Thyself” for a reason.
Question Everything You Know. Whether you’re a recent college grad or not, you’re likely to have a head full of knowledge that will include what other people think you should know and believe. The problem is, some of those ideas could be wrong. Wrong in the most general sense of verifiable accuracy, or wrong as guidelines for living your life. So, challenge what you think you know, and keep only the ideas that resonate for you. After all, the hallmark of a great education is defined not by how much you know but by the questions you ask.
Calibrate Your Moral Compass. Living in a society generally requires knowing what’s right and wrong, and acting accordingly. Unfortunately, today, we seem to live with considerable moral flexibility. So, right and wrong seem to be moving targets. But by defining your personal code of conduct, they don’t have to be. A good start is to think in terms of personal morality (what’s right and wrong for you) and interpersonal morality (what’s right and wrong between people), and then set your compass accordingly. Just make sure that the values that populate your compass have clear definitions that guide your behavior.
Determine Your Current Reputation. As already noted, your reputation is made up of the shared opinions and beliefs about you. It is held in the hearts and minds of others, and very likely has both positive and negative elements. You probably already have some idea of how you’re seen, but it’s worth getting some fresh feedback. Simply paying closer attention helps, but you can get deeper and richer feedback by asking for it, either directly or by using a formal 360 instrument.
Identify Your Talents. Like most people, you’re really good at some things, but not so good at others. Generally, what you do well is what allows you to produce results that will be valued by others. Typically, the more value you produce, the more successful you become, both at work and in other parts of your life. So, take some time to identify your talents and how you can put them in service of others. To this end, it helps to analyze your accomplishments in terms of the challenge you faced, the actions you took, the results you achieved, and how that made you feel. You may also want to take a StrengthsFinder assessment to identify innate themes for you.
Uncover Your Story. Frankly, there is nothing that sets you apart from others as much as your story. Even if you have beliefs, interests, and abilities in common with others, chances are you arrived at them by a different path. It’s worth tracing that path. You life is continuous ebb and flow that includes failures and turning points as well as triumphs and achievements. What’s more, by uncovering your story, you can identify the themes that give you a sense of purpose and direction. Knowing and being ready to share your story will help you truly stand out.
Visibility: Showing Up
Figure Out For Whom You Need To Show Up. Generally, the main people you need to show up for are the people who benefit from the value you provide. Most often this will be employers and clients, but can also include other organizations or groups who seek our service. Yet, beyond these is an array of people who matter to your success, including other members of your profession and various project partners. Taken together they may be referred to as your community of practice, brand community, or simply community. So, make sure to identify who they are.
Cultivate Relationships Within Your Community. Spending time with people, at work and in other settings, implies you have a relationship. Yet, your goal needs to be developing the kind of depth that makes those relationships professionally, and even personally, meaningful. While you won’t necessarily have deep relationships with everyone in your community, it is the foundation of your professional network. So, take time to connect both broadly and deeply, both in personal and via social media.
Get To Know the Interests and Concerns of Others. Ultimately, your goal in showing up is to become a relevant resource to your community. Yet, to achieve that, you need to know and what their interests and needs are, so you’ll be able to address those. The best way gain that perspective is to listen. Listen during real time conversations, and listen on social media. As well, newsletters and other professional publications can deepen your understanding.
Establish Your Professional Presence. As you gain a firm grasp on who you are, whom you serve, and what makes you relevant, you need to build your presence both online and in person. This means creating a personal communication set that includes your bio/profile, photos, video, and other media that help your community get to know you online, and especially on a professional platform like LinkedIn. It also means pursuing activities, such as volunteering, speaking, or meetups, where you can bring your professional presence to life by engaging others “live” and in person.
Share Valuable Content. Increasingly, standing out requires sharing your perspectives on matters of interest to your community. While blogging has been, and continues to be, a primary vehicle of many people, it’s not the only approach. Today, commenting on and sharing relevant content, has increasingly become a preferred strategy for gaining visibility. While there are many sources of great content, you can also benefit by finding and sharing the content created by leaders in your community of practice. Not only does this enhance your value, but can also help you develop relationships with those thought leaders.
Don’t Hesitate to Shake Up the Status Quo. Within your community, you’ll usually have one or more group memberships. Part of what establishes your belonging is a set of shared values, views, and beliefs. Mostly, this is fine; however, too much deference to a group eventually blocks your ability to differentiate yourself in terms of your views and approaches. To stand out, you need to express your contrarian positions when they arise. Sure, you expose yourself to challenge and maybe some ridicule. Yet, to the extent that the positions you take provide value to others, you can earn the kind of resect that enhances your reputation.