When I first heard the term ‘personal branding’, I thought it was complete rubbish. To me, it sounded like: You have to fit into a certain box to be accepted into a specific environment, so contort and mould yourself until you fit nice and tight into that box.
I am a very authentic person – what you see is what you get – so I physically and emotionally could not bring myself to be something that I am not. I decided to bow out of the whole conversation. I thought I needed to find an environment where I could just be me and let my work do the talking.
To me, the idea of branding myself sounded arrogant, phony and contrived: not only would I have to do great work but I would also have to talk about it all the time, pound my chest and constantly ask people to notice me. It was all Team Too Much and I wasn’t willing to do any of it.
It was not until I met Donna Rachelson, a South African expert in personal, team and entrepreneur branding, that the importance of personal branding started making sense to me. I was fortunate enough to attend one of her workshops early on in my tenure at McKinsey, and I had three important epiphanies during the session.
First, a brand is the words or emotions that come to people’s minds when someone mentions your name. It’s the space that you occupy in the mind of your client, customer or anyone else.
Second, you have a brand whether you want one or not, so you might as well manage it. And third, you can intentionally and authentically craft your brand in a way that resonates with who you are and what you want to be known for.
A brand that fits you
Branding is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. You don’t have to be someone you are not. For example, if you are an introvert, there are ways to cultivate your brand that resonate with your preferences.
The same is true for extroverts. You don’t have to build your brand in the same way as others do, and they don’t have to follow your lead either. Branding differs from person to person. It’s not about copying someone else, but rather about finding a way that is authentic and sustainable for you.
The first steps that you can take to market yourself are to determine what you want your brand to be, assess your current brand and then create an action plan to close the gap between the two. And, as with anything, you will have to assess the effectiveness of your branding and make adjustments as you go along.
Donna helped me to understand that my overarching mission in life is to empower other people, which is precisely why I wrote this book. I might empower others through a variety of platforms and topics, but empowerment is the umbrella term under which all my ideas fit.
The word ‘empowerment’ summarises my brand and needs to be woven through everything I do, say, deliver, wear and post online. Ultimately, a brand is a verbal commitment that is not just about you. You are sharing with the world what you stand for, what you will deliver and, most importantly, the value that you can add to their lives through your unique set of skills, gifts, talents and perspectives. Then it is up to you to live up to that promise in every way, every day.
As I began to think about the brands that I love most, I realised that the most authentic brands are the ones with the most impact and longevity. I realised that the same could be said for my own personal brand. The brand identity and approach that would be perfect for me would be one that is authentic, effective and sustainable.
Remember that having a great brand encourages people to invest in and support you, which in turn increases your skill set, your profile and your access to high-impact opportunities. All of this increases your ability to work with people on projects that have more impact in your organisation.
Let’s talk about three myths and truths about personal branding:
Myth 1: Personal branding is all about bragging, self-promotion and being the colleague that works our last nerve.
Truth 1: Personal branding is about sharing the authentic value that you bring through your work. It is about delivering on and communicating a promise and occupying a certain space in your client or customer’s mind.
Myth 2: Personal branding is only done well by extroverts and men.
Truth 2: Branding doesn’t have to be done in a loud and boisterous way. It has to be done authentically, and everyone has the capacity to be authentic.
Myth 3: The visibility that you get from personal branding is a finite resource.
Truth 3: The sun is large enough to warm the entire world. No one ever says, ‘If you get sunshine then I can’t.’ There is enough sun for all of us to get some shine. We all bring different things to the table, so we can all be recognised for our individual contributions.
Branding yourself is much like marketing a product. Imagine that you devote your entire career to researching, developing and manufacturing the world’s greatest product, something that could save lives. If you don’t talk about the product – what it’s made of, its benefits and how to access it – no one will ever know about it. In other words, awareness and communication are key.
Let’s take the Coca-Cola Company as an example. It has been around since 1886 and Coca-Cola is the most successful and well-known soft drink in the world. Coca-Cola spends billions of dollars each year to create awareness and differentiation of its brand.
Every year, the company works hard to occupy a certain space in your mind, making sure you continue to think positively, and feel certain emotions, about the brand.
If Coca-Cola still brands itself after almost 150 years and billions of dollars in revenue, don’t you think you should do so too?
Keeping it real
You can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect to stand out from the crowd. So how do you differentiate yourself? I often hear young people say, ‘I can’t be fake; I am who I am.’
Remember that building your personal brand is not about being someone that you’re not. It’s about being the best version of your authentic self and making sure everything you do – how you dress, speak, write, deliver a message or a presentation, engage with others, your online presence – aligns with what you want to be known for.
Rather than viewing yourself from an either/or perspective – ‘I am either this or that’, ‘I am either fake or authentic’ – consider viewing your personal brand on a continuum.
Let’s say that there is a continuum of authenticity and it is structured from levels one to ten, with ten being your most authentic, unfiltered version of yourself. This might be the version you display when you are with your family and closest friends.
However, if you’re in an interview, you might tone it down to a five or six because the interviewers might not be able to handle you on ten.
Always consider your audience and determine how your message will be received if you present it on level ten. In addition, if your family and friends could see you during an interview or when you’re at work, my hope is that they would still recognise you and how you’re acting.
But the reverse is also true. If your co-workers were to come to your house and see you hanging out with your family and friends, I hope they would recognise some version of you, even if it is a more unfiltered version.
Remember that not everyone might be able to handle you at authenticity level ten. Keep this in mind in the workplace, especially if your goal is for your message to be well received.
It is not merely for you to just be and say what you feel. Yes, authenticity is important, because, psychologically speaking, it can be tiring to be two complete opposite versions of yourself. However, there is a way to find a good middle ground.
Finding that space on the continuum allows you to be yourself while using your energy to solve the problem at hand and reach your intended audience. Again, the importance of authenticity cannot be overstated when it comes to branding. Bring your full self, which is the totality of who you are: your personality, experiences, sense of humour, strengths, areas for development, quirks, interests and perspective on the world, people and situations.
Everything that has happened to you has shaped you into the unique individual that you are today. The way you see the world is your source of distinctiveness. My advice is to determine what authenticity means for you; only you will know how it looks and feels. I cannot tell you what authenticity looks like because it manifests itself differently for everyone.
What is common to all of us, though, is how authenticity feels. Authenticity is when you feel at ease. It feels effortless. It is when you don’t feel a need to behave in a certain way to protect yourself or convince others to like you. Authenticity doesn’t come from a place of pain, trauma or brokenness. If you strip away all that is external and physical, it is the core and essence of who you are.
If authenticity implies standing up for your values, it also means that you might be called to do so in the face of authority, or when it might be unpopular. Authenticity means that you feel so strongly about your values and beliefs that you are willing to go out on a limb and risk failure, embarrassment, being wrong or upsetting your seniors. Authenticity also means having the courage to take risks and ask for help or additional clarity when you don’t understand something.
If you’re ever in a public or professional setting with me, you’ll find out that I ask a lot of questions. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I will keep asking questions until it does – even if it makes me look dumb or as if I wasn’t paying attention. My aim is not to look smart. My aim is to get clarity so that I can do my job well. (I can’t tell you how many times people have walked up to me after a meeting or discussion is over to say, ‘That question you asked . . . I was wondering the same thing but I didn’t want to ask.’)
Finally, authenticity is also about admitting when things are not going well. Being true to yourself means being real about your performance at work and taking the necessary steps to help you turn the situation around.
I say that everything you do contributes to your personal brand, I mean everything: how you speak, dress and deliver. Sometimes people think it is only in certain situations that excellence counts.
When you are early in your career, your attitude and output at work plays a huge role in building your brand. When you turn in an Excel spreadsheet with incorrect numbers or poor logic, it reflects on your brand. When your PowerPoint presentation contains misspelled words or the wrong numbers, that is how you’ve chosen to brand yourself. Is that what you want to be known for? The person whose work can’t be trusted?
Now, mistakes will always be made, but you want to try to avoid silly mistakes and repeat offences. Even if your spellchecked and number-checked work leads to nothing in the short term, it still shapes your reputation at work, which affects the feedback you will eventually receive and the opportunities you will subsequently be offered.
Branding tips for your personality and lifestyle
Branding can look different for different people. If you’re an introvert, you might be thinking, ‘I’m shy. I hate networking events and I feel awkward at them.’ Or, if you’re very busy, you might be saying, ‘I am really time-constrained and I don’t have time to be at all these events.’ Here are a few examples of branding tips for introverts and busy people.
- Think about what makes you comfortable and makes you feel authentic. Start there. Start somewhere! To continue to do nothing is not an option.
- Use social media. You can use social media to display your knowledge and brand yourself as an expert in your field.
- Use one-on-one opportunities to connect. If you’re uncomfortable at large events and prefer one-on-one meetings or smallgroup sessions, reach out to individuals and schedule coffee chats to share your knowledge and to learn more from those people.
- Use your preference for alone time to hone your craft. Then convey what you’ve learnt when you’re at work or in a meeting with decision-makers, influencers and your manager.
- Use your environment to demonstrate your expertise. If you’re in an environment where education is valued, talk about your university and graduate school experiences. Hang up those degrees and certificates in your working space. It can be a conversation starter, help people learn more about you and see you in a different light.
- Look for opportunities to share what you know. Mentor junior people in your office. Volunteer to show your expertise in a lunch ’n learn or at a professional event. Other people will start sharing how knowledgeable you are and how much value you add.
- Step outside your comfort zone. Once you’re more comfortable with branding, consider pushing yourself to attend a networking event. Think about two or three people you want to talk to before the event and start a conversation with those people.
- Be strategic. You can’t go to every networking event, so try to figure out which ones are the most important and attend those.
- Be fully present from 8 am to 5 pm. Be engaged when you are at work. Resist the urge to be on social media. Take advantage of lunch-time chats or coffee-break conversations to give people a chance to know you and what you’re working on.
- Be prepared to offer your thoughts. If you’re going to a meeting, understand what is being discussed and come prepared with two to three points you’d like to make during the meeting.
- Get your manager’s help. Tell your manager that you are trying to raise your visibility to build relationships in the organisation. Communicate your goals for your career and be as specific as you can in terms of where you need her help. Try to align your aspirations with your manager’s goals or challenges so he or she is even more incentivised to help you. Ask for your manager’s feedback (what you’re doing well and what you could do differently) as you build visibility to make sure you’re on the right track.
Intelligence Isn't Enough: A Black Professional's Guide to Thriving in the Workplace is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and retails for R250
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