A friend of mine and I were talking about our careers. I was telling him that too many companies don’t know what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into a particular niche. “You need to brand yourself,” he suggested.
“You mean permanently sear myself with a red-hot iron? Didn’t they used to do that to slaves so if they ran away, they could identify the owner?”
My friend knew me well enough to let this pass. He explained that personal branding is the process of developing an image of yourself and presenting that image to others. I already knew this, but I nodded all the same. I didn’t feel like getting into the fact that I would rather be forced to sit through an Adam Sandler movie marathon than ever bother with a personal brand.
Now, I’m all for taking charge of my own career. I’ve learned that if I don’t do it, no one else will. Nobody is waking up each day and saying, how can I help develop Manfred professionally? They have their own lives to worry about.
Hot iron aside, personal branding takes this idea to a whole new level. It wants to boil me down to a single, simple message that is appealing to others, complete with a slogan and a catchy jingle. This may work fine for Diet Coke or iPhones or Porsches, but I’m a person not a product.
On this blog, I write about human resources. It’s part of who I am, but it isn’t all that I am. I also write fiction. I play piano. I’m a soccer fan. My three daughters mean the world to me. If I were to brand myself as just an HR Guy, all those other aspects of my life would have to take a back seat, they may disappear entirely, yet they help make me who I am.
Personal branding, however, is all about how you appear to the world, not about who you really are. Take one of the biggest personal brands out there, President Donald Trump. Whatever you think of his politics (I try not to think about it too much), he has made his fortune not through his questionable business dealings, but by being Donald Trump. He exudes a particular image of success that some find appealing, and he has attached that image to everything from hotels to mail order steaks. He clings tightly to his reputation as a great businessman, attacking anyone or anything that threatens it. His success, after all, relies on people believing he’s a success. It’s one of the reasons I believe he doesn’t want to release his tax returns. If he did, we might learn he doesn’t have the billions he brags about being worth.
Personal branding is disingenuous. Some have said they like Trump because they know who he is, but do they really? Numerous accounts and reports point to the inconsistencies in his behavior, that he often doesn’t believe what he says, but says it because he knows it will get him the attention he craves. Often, a personal brand doesn’t promote who you are, but what you think others want you to be. Think of the simple example of how you dress. You may want to go to work in a t-shirt and jeans every day. but your profession dictates a suit and tie. You dress like this so that people will have a certain perception of you. It isn’t who you are.
But Donald Trump is President of the United States, you’re saying to yourself. Isn’t he proof that personal branding works?
That depends on what you want to achieve. If your goals are fame and fortune and power, Trump’s model might work for you (assuming you also have access to your Daddy’s fortune). But if you want to be happy you’re on the wrong track. Most studies show that to be happy, you need strong interpersonal relationships, and personal branding isn’t going to bring you that. It can’t because it’s whole purpose is to turn you into a commodity, and no one can get close to a commodity. You can’t be friends with a car or a computer, no matter how hard some people try.
Personal branding means always being on stage. But characters on stage, no matter how well written and acted, are not true people. Most aren’t even characters, they are caricatures. Stereotypes, flat and lifeless and easily mocked.
You have to be who you truly are.
But what if I’m a jerk? You ask yourself. Well, if you aren’t going to change, (and you can only change by small degrees anyway), then own it. One of my favorite authors is Harlan Ellison. He’s written that when people meet him, they are often disappointed, because they expect him to somehow be like the people in his stories. Instead, they find a cantankerous, opinionated and often rude man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He is extremely passionate about his beliefs, and this can come across as arrogant and unyielding.
Harlan Ellison wouldn’t last a day in most corporate environments (there is a great account he gives about a job at Disney in which he didn’t even last through lunch) but that’s not what he has tried to do. No, he is a writer, and in writing he has found a place where his personality can take a back seat to his work.
Work – that’s the key. You probably know people who talk a good game. They say all the right things at meetings, they appear professional and speak with enthusiasm. They tell you everything you want to hear. Everyone who meets them for the first time thinks they’re a winner. But when deadlines are missed, projects fail, work is sloppy, it soon becomes apparent that their personal brand is nothing but a façade. Image doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the skills and abilities to live up to that image.
So don’t expect me to put myself in a nice neat box that fits on the shelf in your closet labeled “HR Guy”, to be taken out whenever you need me. Expect me to be that jumble of plastic bins in the back of your garage, filled with assorted odds and ends you think you might need someday, that you’ve been meaning to get around to sorting through but never do.
I’m not going to have a personal brand. Then again, maybe my personal brand is to have no brand at all.