Personal branding is all the rage at the moment, with articles on the topic being posted on LinkedIn almost daily. So is it a fad or should you really pay attention to your personal brand? And how does it relate to the whole idea of being your authentic self, which is the other fad getting a lot of airtime?
The best way to think about this is to look past the buzzwords and what ideas lie behind the talk about personal branding and authenticity. For a while now many professionals have expressed the desire for ‘humanised workplaces’, where employees can ‘bring their authentic self’ to work. This reflects the desire for autonomy and integrity – the ability to make decisions about how you do your work and the belief that you shouldn’t have to comprise your personal values and beliefs to be successful at work.
Whilst more and more positions do offer autonomy, the whole idea of corporate values has run into the obvious contradiction that plagued it from the start – if in doubt, companies make decisions based on profit, not values. In some jurisdictions they are compelled to do so by law, which is why B-Corporations were created in the US in the last couple of years to legally support a broader based decision making approach. At the same time, there are less than 1,000 certified B-Corporations in existence today, a tiny number compared to the approximately 30 million companies in the US. Given that most professionals hold values about community and the environment that run counter to a pure profit motive, it is unrealistic to expect a fast convergence between personal values and corporate decision making.
Opportunities to bring your authentic self to work will remain limited not just for this reason, but also because of the way we structure and assess people and work inside an organisation. Irrespective of any formal performance management and ranking system that is in place, research has clearly shown that 80% of how your are judged by your manager is simple down to the image you project in your manager’s presence. Which explains why personal branding (or image management as it used to be called in the 80s and 90s) works and why it is important to anyone seeking to advance their career. You will be promoted based on your perceived brand, not on the results you deliver at work. You may perceive this as unfair and unsatisfactory, but when was the last time you assessed and marked the work of one of your direct reports the way a teacher marks a test at school? The only environment I am aware of where this happens in a structured and well-defined way tend to be call centres.
The interesting question behind this admittedly weird state of affairs would have to be WHY? Why haven’t we created objective, repeatable performance measures? Why do most organisations these days know pretty much everything about their customers and their purchase habits, but next to nothing about how individuals actually perform at work? Could it be that the results might turn out to be unflattering to those in charge or even make them superfluous? Since there has been no attempt to rectify the lack of objective performance measures I would venture that it is safe to assume that they are not going to be introduced any time soon, for whatever reason. Which bring us back to authenticity and personal brand.
Authenticity is great as long as you take the context into account. That’s why you don’t go to work in your pyjamas and you don’t indulge your favourite online game whilst your boss is looking over your shoulder. Playing games in your pyjamas might well be an expression of your authentic self, but it isn’t always appropriate. You are required to conform to organisational norms and expectations at work, which curbs the expression of your authentic self. The question is how far that goes. If you have to ‘disown’ critical parts of yourself to thrive or even survive at work, then clearly the culture isn’t right for you. If it is the same everywhere you go, then maybe you have to create your own business to feel in integrity.
A personal brand is simply a fancy way of saying that, despite all assurances to the contrary, image management works. What you do and say in front of people who can promote you (or hire you) is crucial to your career prospects. We already all know that you have to ‘perform’ in an interview. Well, the same way every meeting with your boss, every presentation to the higher ups and every chance encounter with a superior in the kitchen is a performance stage managed by you. That’s what personal branding is about. What you chose to say and what you chose not to say. How you say it and how you look when you say it. You have seen this in people who talk very differently when the boss is around. Whether this is a conscious choice or not, they have internalised the message that to progress they need to ‘perform’ in front of the manager. Because it works.
To summarise, your personal brand is NOT the true expression of your authentic self. This wouldn’t even work in your own business, because there will inevitably be situations where you have to behave as expected, which may not be reflective of the ‘real’ you. Your personal brand is a carefully chosen image combining elements of your authentic self with elements of what is expected in the environment you are in. It can and should be tailored slightly to suit the specific people you interact with. Above all, it should be congruent, that is reflect your actual competence, skills and abilities. It will evolve as you progress your career and adjust your brand to steer perceptions of you in the direction of the opportunities you are seeking for the future.