Beyond Personal Brand: Why You Need To Pursue Originality

iStock_000067954529_XXXLargeThese days, it’s almost a sacrilege not to have a personal brand. After all, if you want to be successful, you need to stand out! Yet, if you think about it, making sure you have a personal brand could be just one more conformist thing you do in pursuit of success.

The Content of Your Character

Still, as a personal brand strategist, I can tell you that the process of personal branding can bring amazing personal clarity and confidence. Not only is that an asset in your career, but also in your life generally. So, from my vantage point, there is a huge benefit in doing the deep work of uncovering the story, attributes, strengths, beliefs, and external perceptions that make you who you are.

Yet, I continue to believe personal branding – at least as most people approach it—needs to be re-imagined. It’s a conclusion, I came to after being inspired by Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, in her remarkable book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. And based on her analysis, I’ve offered several ideas for developing a truly differentiated personal brand grounded in who you are and what you bring to the people you serve. As I see it, while professional competence matters, the essence of your personal brand is found primarily in the content of your character.

Being Different. Doing Different.

Essentially, though, establishing a personal brand is an activity in being. Clearly conveying who you are helps you build relationships inside of the community you serve. The more your qualities resonate with your audiences, the more likely they’ll want to work with you. Fundamentally, however, your core service may actually be the same as what’s provided by other people in your industry. For example, even as an accountant who’s closely aligned with small business owners who, like you, see themselves as corporate refugees seeking more freedom and fun in their work life, you are still delivering accounting services.

In many respects, personal branding, for many people, has meant delivering commodity services inside of a uniquely personalized package. Actually, it’s a model that has proven stable and sustainable over time. Provided your client base remains fairly stable, and happy with how you work with them, they’ll likely remain loyal well into the future. Unfortunately, things change. People change. Tools change. So, to stick with the accountant example, clients may buy and learn the latest Quick Books and Turbo Tax versions, and soon have less need for what you once provided.

Let’s face it. Whatever your personal attributes, your reputation is grounded in the outputs you produce. In a stable world, your biggest risk is the other people who package the same outputs in an attractive set of personal attributes.

But we don’t live in a stable world.

Pursuing Originality

Saying we live in an age of disruption seems almost cliché. Sure we all know that there are people out there who aim to become successful by uberizing their industry. Yet, for most of us, that’s not a realistic aim. More likely, to the extent we crave change at all, it’s probably about reinventing our careers. And the degree to which we seek out personal transformation is usually related to the extent of dissatisfaction we feel.

Yet, I’d argue that even those of us who are reasonably satisfied in our careers and lives are at risk of being blindsided by change if we don’t actively embrace it. But how do we actively pursue constructive and meaningful change?

In his remarkable new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines what drives originality and what it takes to develop, voice, and champion new ideas. It’s an amazing and well-researched book rich in storytelling and surprising insights. While Grant provides a complete and detailed treatment of what it takes to produce creative and original ideas, here are six ways to get started on making changes in your work and life:

Question the default. Don’t take the status quo for granted. Consider why it exists in the first place, and how it can be changed or improved.

Young beautiful business lady is thinking about new business ideas. Business icons and a rocket are drawn on the concrete wall.

Generate more ideas. Studies have found that masters, such as great composers and artists, produce a great volume of work, with their best work being only a small part of what they create. You boost your originality when you increase your output.

Immerse yourself in a new domain. Expand your frame of reference by diversifying your experience with creative activities such as photography, learning about new cultures, or even by starting a new job or project.

Procrastinate strategically. Take breaks from creating or brainstorming so that your ideas have time to incubate.

Seek feedback from peers. Because you may be too emotionally invested in your idea, it’s hard to see its viability. Your peers, however, often have the objectivity to give you valuable assessments.

Balance your risks. When you’re going to take a risk in one part of you life, offset it by being extra cautious in other areas of living.

Ultimately, you may choose to continue conforming to the standards that brought you success in the first place. Or you could engage in a kind of “creative destruction” that can shift work and life advantages in your favor. In deciding, consider the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

What do you think?

12 Thoughts On How To Stand Out

HiResRecently, 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.

Why?

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. HiResLike 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. HiResAs 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.

Are You Avoiding the “Dark Side” of Personal Branding?

Dark Side of BrandingThese days, many people believe that if you want to achieve success, you really need to have a personal brand. While only an emerging idea with Tom Peters’ 1997 article, “The Brand Called You,” personal branding has taken on considerable momentum. In his seminal article, Peters asserted: “Starting today you are a brand.”

Yet, initially, many people misunderstood personal branding. Still, it clearly held appeal for some, prompting them to consider the distinctive value they deliver, opening the door to the possibility of becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents. With the pioneering work of early thought leaders, increasing numbers of people undertook the process of discovering and communicating their brand in terms of their unique promise of value.

Over the years, personal branding has become more mainstream. Today, consultants and coaches practicing in a wide variety of specialties, including resume writers, image consultants, and social media advisors, offer advice on how to create a personal brand. In fact, if you google “creating your brand,” you can tap into an abundance of advice of varying degrees of quality and usefulness.

What concerns me, as a long-time personal branding strategist, is the degree to which so much advice has drifted away from the disciplined process built on external feedback, introspective exercises, and the ongoing inquiry needed to grow and develop. Today, the emphasis is on creating, building, and promoting your personal brand – and the shortcuts to get it done fast. [Tweet this]

The Big Me

While I’ve always considered the superficiality of created personal brands to be problematic, the real danger of such an effort was only recently highlighted for me, albeit indirectly, by David Brooks in his interesting new book, The Road to Character. In it, he makes a case for building character, saying:

“We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”

Without a strategy for building character, he says, people can put too much emphasis on external factors at the expense of internal life – and risk seeing both fall apart. Among the factors he points to as essential to character is humility, and he sees it lacking in today’s culture:

“…we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”

Among the personal outcomes of living inside the Big Me culture is a “a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.” While he doesn’t say it directly, I think it also can lead to limiting exposure to people and ideas that can challenge – and maybe shatter – one’s worldview. Yet, people typically rely on others for self-validation. So, the Big Me culture generates a kind of herd mentality that gets continually reinforced. [Tweet This] And that can lead to groupthink, where dissenting viewpoints are actively suppressed, or where people isolate themselves from outside influences in safety zones akin to safe spaces or hugboxes.

But let’s face it. Creating a brand without first uncovering and challenging Big Me cultural beliefs is dangerous. Why? Because it creates a new conformity that constrains differentiation. Worse, it also limits personal growth. And people who don’t grow, and brands that don’t evolve, become stagnant and irrelevant. [Tweet This]

Something You Earn

Frankly, the Brooks piece opened my eyes to the potential dark side of personal branding. Still, I’m not the first to take a critical look at branding generally, and personal branding in particular. Yet, being a certified personal branding strategist does, I believe, afford me a unique perspective. One that I hope can save you from creating a brand that serves only as an exercise in superficial self-promotion.

Remember: A personal brand is a reputation. It’s something you earn through your consistent service to others. [Tweet This]

Sure, you can raise your visibility on social media. And what you show and how you behave will influence how people see you. Yet, the kind of reputation that will stand as “your brand” is determined first and foremost by your ability to truly serve your community. In turn, that can be influenced by how well you do what you do, what you’ve accomplished, actions taken to correct your faults, your record of meeting challenges, and your success in overcoming adversity.

Sure that’s a lot to think about. Yet, if you construct a brand without taking a long hard look at yourself, you may hurt yourself in the long run. [Tweet This]

An Ongoing Process

At the core of the process is the pursuit of personal clarity – which is the true basis for your success. Think about it. If you have a grasp of the attributes, strengths, beliefs, and life transitions that make you who you are, you don’t have to worry about conforming to an image you created. Different, leader, best, unique and discrimination conceptYou simply get to be you — and that’s a big difference!

Being you is not static, though. As your circumstances change, you need to adjust how you approach things. That means always “living in the inquiry.” That is, always examining your beliefs in light of new ideas, spotting potential weaknesses that point to personal growth needs, and even ongoing nurturing of relationships that will keep you relevant and successful in serving your community.

The self-examination that comes from living in the inquiry takes discipline and even humility. [Tweet This] Yet, by committing to this long-term process, you can avoid slipping into the comfortable limits of your own safe space. You can more effectively respond to what life throws at you. Best of all, you get to take true ownership of your destiny in all parts of your life – from the way to run your career, to the various activities you engage in, to the relationships you develop and value.

Embracing Possibility: Why Glamour Fuels Your Vision for Success

BeatsI don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a big fan of top brands. Part of the reason is that I’ve found that the premium you pay is often worth it. But I’m also cautious.  So, as I’m now in the market for Bluetooth headphones, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of reviews. Among the models I’ve been looking at is Beats By Dre Wireless Headphones. Interestingly, in his review Kevin Nether said some things that struck me as compelling, and set me thinking about the power for branding – especially what makes for our emotional connection to brands we love.

Specifically, he noted that after being introduced by Dr. Dre, Beats headphones gained visibility via Hip Hop producers and celebrities as well as product placement. He went on to explain that over time, these headphones have become more of a fashion statement, “rather than a premium audio set up.”  While making the point that the product doesn’t skimp, he says,  “You end up paying more because it has a Beats logo on it, point blank, period.” [Tweet this]

And as you may already know, countless people do!

Branding and Glamour

Up to now, I’ve taken emotional connection to brands for granted, and not looked any deeper. Yet, in recently reading Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour, I’m getting a deeper appreciation of the emotional connection we have to our favorite brands. Fundamentally, the attraction starts with the glamour conveyed by the brand. That is, with its power to tap our longings, even if only barely formed, it gives them an object of focus. It is pleasurable, even if only for a few moments.  Glamour can make an object attractive. Yet, glamour is double edged.  [Tweet this] As Postrel says:

“Glamour is an illusion and, according to its critics, a dangerous snare. But because it recognizes and concentrates real desires, the mirage can also prove a valuable, life-enhancing inspiration. Glamour, we can now say, is … an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true.” It focuses inchoate desires and embodies them in the image or idea of a person, a setting, an artifact, or occasionally a concept. By inviting projection and making the ideal feel attainable, the glamorous image intensifies longing and, in some cases, moves the audience to action.”

If you think about it, what’s attracted you to particular brands goes beyond packaging and promotion. Rather, what makes a brand attractive is it’s promise of transformation. [Tweet this]

That transformation is very likely multifaceted, but also includes how the product bolsters your social status and sense of identity. As Nether points out in his Beats review, “…let me tell you, people comment, ask to listen, and even give me awkward fist pumps because I’m wearing Beats. It seems like there is a silent camaraderie when purchasing Beats headphones, with other owners and people who just envy you.”

While quality and the underlying performance of a brand matter, loyalty is more about the added benefits the brand provides. And perhaps one of the most powerful benefits is the sense of exclusivity that comes from being an insider. In fact, the glamour of a brand also taps a desire for fellowship and belonging. [Tweet this] It’s not that people merely envy you, it’s that they see a bond of shared community. You can see this in operation in a widely diverse array of brand communities – from Apple Stores to Harley Owners Groups!

Beyond the Unimagined Life

As you’ve no doubt heard, Greek philosopher Socrates once said the unexamined life is not worth living.  Yet, have you ever stopped to consider the value of the unimagined life? I’ll bet you haven’t. Because, as a human being, you regularly tap into a powerful engine of imagination. It’s called story.

Stories, both other people’s and the one’s we tell ourselves, are key to our survival. We’re wired for story. We live in story. Stories teach us, entertain us, and inspire us. They show us what we can do in life, and often move us to action. In this way, story can drive transformation. And so can glamour. [Tweet this]

Catwalk Ready

As with story, the essential elements of glamour are a promise of escape and transformation, grace, and mystery. Each, in its own way, serves the illusion that is glamour but also it’s appeal. Interestingly, glamour is meant to hide the details, to keep us at a distance. It is the runway show, not the tailoring. Yet, it is this very distance that supports an ideal extension of self. Glamour fires our imagination, and creates a possibility we can live into. [Tweet this]

It’s a Vision Thing

Let’s face it. While you respond to it, glamour is just not something you ordinarily think about. And when you do, you may tend to think of it as a fantasy, or even trivial. After all, because glamour is an illusion, it’s dream like. And yet, what is a vision if not an expression of a longing for a better world? On some level, it seems fair to say that glamour and vision are two sides of one of the same coin. Each enables a broad-brush promise of future fulfillment, leaving us to work out the details for ourselves. As Postrel concludes:

“… the American Dream is an exercise in glamour and, however illusory the dream may sometimes be, the country is better off for the inspiration. When used as a guide rather than as an impossibly perfect goal in itself, glamour can point its audience toward a better, more satisfying life…”

If you haven’t noticed the longings that glamour stirs in you, it may be time you did.

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How does glamour enrich your life? What are the possibilities you are living in to? Just leave a comment. I’d love to know.