Image is everything?

Recently, I was asked to speak about “personal branding” to culminate a week of onboarding for our new crop of leadership program participants, joining us straight from university.

I often like to make cultural references in my presentations, to keep it light and break the ice. However, as I get older and the audiences get younger, I am realizing that this doesn’t work as well… or perhaps I just need to consume more current media. With most of these freshly-minted grads born while I was in high school, not surprisingly, this time was no exception. For me, “personal branding” triggered an ad campaign that former tennis sensation Andre Agassi did in the early ’90s for Canon: “Image is everything.” Agassi… cameras… spandex? Crickets. Ask your parents about it, kids… they’ll remember.

I began by sharing the wikipedia definition of “personal brand”: “a perception or emotion, maintained by somebody other than you, that describes the total experience of having a relationship with you.” I asked the audience how many of them cultivated a personal brand; when only half the room had hands raised, I told them that in an age of social media, all of them were cultivating a personal brand, all the time. I shared the anecdote of riding in the back of my minivan, coming home from a long road trip on July 4th weekend. The amount of personal branding being done by my middle-schooler c/o a LONG string of Snapchat filter-enabled selfies was a sight to behold.

A middle-schooler’s version of personal branding, enabled by Snapchat and an iPhone 7. The grown-ups, of course, have LinkedIn… and Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and countless other options for their branding efforts.

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I stressed why personal branding was important for optimizing your work experience. In a sea of thousands of names and faces in a “city-sized” company like ours, having a strong and favorable personal brand is key to landing opportunities, attracting talent to your team (both formally and informally), gaining support for your ideas and recommendations, and recovering from your mistakes. I related this to my own experience – my ability to jump into a big role in HR (running recruiting) having never formally worked in HR is a testament to the brand I’ve cultivated from my earlier accomplishments and established relationships at my company.

I closed by sharing a view of the hallmarks of effective personal branding:

  • What and how. It’s great to be known for your achievements and expertise. E.g., Andy launched an amazing internal movement initiative, Nikesh is a martech expert, Terrie is a “closer” when it comes to selling. Being good at “what” you do and getting a lot done is important. But I made the case that “how” you do things is also a critical part of your personal brand. E.g., Andy is one of the nicest people at our company, Nikesh loves to teach others, Terrie is fiercely loyal to her people. We often focus on the what and lose sight of the how, when both matter.
  • Being more interested than interesting. Full disclosure: I stole this from our CEO… but it’s an important point. I believe most humans have a built-in sensor for identifying when someone is trying too hard to be “interesting” and are turned off by that, no matter how much substance is behind it. Instead, be “interested” and focus on what it takes to contribute and have impact. Show that you care about the cause, not just about your image. It’s a better way to stand out and cultivate a brand that will be respected vs. resented.
  • Authenticity and consistency. This comes back to the “image is everything?” title of this post. In general, brands are shortcuts for us to grasp onto the essence of something in a sea of things that can otherwise seem identical. People like stories, and they give us a quick story to recognize. But when that story turns out to be false – even for a moment – it can all backfire, and your brand can become harmful. Witness the pain that United Airlines suffered in April, when a passenger removal gone wrong ran completely counter to flying “the friendly skies.” A personal brand works the same way – you need to be authentic in the image that you project, or you will be exposed.
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The very notion of a personal brand can make many feel uncomfortable. A lot of us would rather be heads-down and into our work, not focused on image. But the fact is that you have a personal brand, whether you like it or not. People will form perceptions based on what you do and how you do it (not the logos you’ve collected on your LinkedIn profile), and it will affect your career and ability to have impact at work. Recognizing this (while not obsessing over it), understanding how you’re perceived, and taking steps to correct what’s wrong and strengthen what’s right is the way to have a winning brand that acts as an aid vs. an impediment to your success.

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my current or past employers. If you would like to read more of my writing, you can follow me here on LinkedIn and/or on Twitter at @chrislouie.

You can also read a few of my other LinkedIn posts:

  • The Death of Brands?
  • Why Every Publisher Should Think Subscription First
  • A Netflix Future for the NY Times?