The first time I heard the term “personal brand” was back in 2003 when I went to a ‘Young Women in Finance’ networking event in London. Apparently, when you’re a young female grad in such an industry they feel the need to send you on courses to learn key survival skills to help you get on, in what some see, as a male dominated world even now.
It had all the makings of a great event. Cherie Blair was the surprise speaker, I remember being very impressed with her speaking skills and completely inspired by her story of her career. Plus I met some great girls - a presenter on Bloomberg, investment bankers at Coutts, so many clever, interesting, young women. Coupled with the novelty of free drinks (which really were a big novelty back then) I thought I could get into this whole networking thing really.
Then the workshops began, and… it all got a bit weird. First up was hair and make up, then a bit of wardrobe – how to dress and present yourself to gain respect in a serious financial world. Then we did some persona building, we had to write about the woman we wanted to be in 5 years time and then define a personal branding plan to help us get there.
I was fascinated by the whole thing. I’d only just got past uni and all the job interviews to get into the world of work and career. Now I was learning about a whole other layer of stuff I had to master in order to succeed? Me, 22 years old wondering “Who is my personal brand? Who am I trying to be? Is that really me? How would I like to be perceived?”. But fundamentally thinking how I just didn’t really like the fact that they were teaching us about the appropriate colour of lipstick to wear in the office, or the right type of shoes. Was it this kind of stuff that was really going to make me? Was I going to have to lose a bit of myself and create a whole new brand of Nicola Swankie?
As someone who is naturally a bit messy and looks younger than my years I was always going to be challenged in the financial world to look the part and the respect that came with it. I have only ever owned one suit that ended up getting moth eaten in my flat in Brixton in 2006. I don’t think banking was really ever for me.
When I moved into the advertising community, this whole area of personal brand, connecting and networking seemed to be far less formal, in fact, it seemed to be a lot about getting drunk with people to build influence. I seemed to pick up this skill much more naturally than the neat hairstyles they had tried to teach me at the finance event! Plus, the fashion allowed for a bit more of a messy demeanor. But one of the things I loved most about London adland were its characters, some true masters of personal influencing. They were extremely clever - with what they wore, who they hung out with, what they talked about in conversation, where they went, what they ensured they publicly associated themselves with and what they made sure no-one ever found out… (Except the PAs, they knew all). I could never play the game anywhere near as well as my colleagues, I was forever the one who got too drunk, said the complete wrong thing or just missed the joke, but I loved watching them at work and at play.
Now though, it’s not just the networking event, the lunch, the industry party or the golf course that matter, or even the lipstick and the shoes. We now have the ability to broadcast brand ‘me’. We have become our own little PR machines, managing our reputations online. And I don’t just mean by what we write about ourselves on a LinkedIn profile, but through what we publish across our numerous social networks and how we operate on a day to day basis in the various online communities we are a part of. Having the ability to hit so many people with our message is great right? It makes connecting so much easier, and it gives us more control in how we represent ourselves. Plus you can measure your success of your actions through followers, friends, interactions, re-tweets, etc, etc. It has massive feel good factor potential. However, here are a few personal watch-outs for those people who may just be getting their first taste of happiness through sharing their “personal brand”. In my view there are some areas in which to tread carefully. Personal PR can be quite a fickle world to play in.
Networking versus socialising
Networks undoubtedly have value. Connections matter. It is still about meeting the right people and building relationships, and now, to a large extent this can all be done online and that’s exciting! You can do it wherever you are at any time. It feels good to connect and talk, it makes us happy, but there is a fine line between networking and just plain playing. When is it beneficial and when does your interaction with Twitter, LinkedIn and all the rest simply become a massive time suck? I’ve spoken to many people who tell me of the thrill they get when that little light turns on under the @ sign on Twitter and can be faster to reply to those than to a normal text message. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with socialising but are you fooling yourself into thinking you are building an influential network when you are really just chatting with your mates? Really? Honestly?
Are you building a valuable personal brand or just feeding your own ego?
A slightly different thought, like our princesses of social and sharing competing for Prom Queen, are we in danger of becoming obsessed with managing our own public profiles so we can compare and contrast with others? Has marketing yourself become a competitive game?
Yeah, it makes us happy when we share stuff, and if we get re-tweeted and recognised within our close community, it’s even sweeter. But is this hit of social joy clouding our judgement in how much time we should invest in building our professional profile instead of producing professional work? Where does our building influence and connections in our own networks stop being useful for us and our employers? Are we just talking to the same bunch of people? Are we all just re-tweeting ourselves? Are we in danger of being in a social media bubble?
We should absolutely listen, look for new conversations to join and people to meet. But in the same way a diary full of lunches and dinner dates will more than likely end up draining you in the long run- so will playing in these communities and conversations. Try them out and experiment with different ones, but make sure you pick the right and most beneficial for you, and that might not always be the conversations that just make you feel awesome about yourself. (Sorry!)
We have all heard the stories of stuff being found on Facebook or Twitter that has affected someone’s career badly. It sounds simple, but you really do need to apply a bit of common sense to what you share and where now, as well as what others share about you. We are getting smarter though – this article last week from Pew Internet, makes the point that this generation are getting smarter about how they manage their online reputations – basically because they have to be.
Millennials are “the most active online reputation managers.” They proactively take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online, customize privacy settings, delete unwanted comments from their online profiles, and remove their names from photos.
But if I don’t reveal every single step I take, am I hiding something? Is that suspicious too?
Talking it and doing it are very different things.
There is no worse feeling than when you realise you have oversold yourself and now the reality is you are faced with a situation where you have bitten off more than you can chew. The online world increases that risk by the security and confidence the keyboard can give us versus what we can do in real life. We can talk ourselves up, and be a master of the theory, but the hard graft is an entirely different matter and generally, it’s certainly not as fun as the talk that got you there.
The lunches still matter
You can tweet away to your hearts content, but nothing can beat the connection you get with people face to face. Don’t let your phone get in the way of the physical connection. It might be tempting, but focusing on the person you are actually with is crucial. Resist the urge to check in on what else might be happening in the online world. If the person opposite you feels overlooked that can damage their view on you in a much deeper way than anything online can.
Phew… Can I just be myself now?
My final point is, I think, the most important to consider. In this world of continual connection and having the ability to broadcast out to our networks at any point in time, have we all just taken the idea of profile management a bit too far? Do we really need to give people a personal brand so they know what to expect from us? Can’t we just relax and say what we want sometimes without thinking about the personal branding implications? Or is the equivalent of going to work with no make-up and unstraightened hair in the bank, will people really stop taking you seriously?
Maybe its because I am just never destined for success in this kind of thing, I was never able to look neat enough for banking, and I just don’t have the charm of a London Adlander, but I really like Maureen Johnson‘s thinking in her Accidental Manifesto around this whole area. Her post got me thinking. The main messages I took from it were don’t get too crazy about pushing yourself out there, you might manage yourself into becoming a commodity, churning out what is expected of you because our a perception you have built up about yourself and that’s just silly. Just let yourself be yourself and crucially, make sure you have a bit of fun. Here is her manifesto.
Maureen Johnson’s Manifesto
The internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people—talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand—tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.