Don’t Believe All You Hear About Personal Branding

Before Personal Branding

In previous articles I have advised job seekers to think like a recruiter. Every step of the hiring process takes two parties to make it happen: candidate and company. Anyone looking for a new career opportunity is actually doing the same thing that recruiters or sourcers do when they are looking for someone to hire…only in reverse. There is no official universal rulebook for either side, but both must create a play book and formulate a game plan to bring the search to a successful conclusion. Job seekers should look for all the advice they can get from the other side of the interviewing table. It isn’t cheating to know what the other side expects and it is always easier to play a game if you have learned the other team’s play book by scouting them. But advice is cheap. Some job assistance comes with strings attached and some is just poorly thought out even though most people mean well and actually want to help. It is just too easy to be misinformed or to just mindlessly mimic a common theme that has been heard so frequently it is believable. The one question that will always rein in erroneous thinking is this: “What does a recruiter really want.”

After Personal Branding

One common theme in books, blogs, classes and Twitter chats is the value of a personal brand to the job search. Advocates will preach that it is the one single thing that will get someone a new job. So put this to the test: What does a recruiter want to see in the personal brand of a candidate? The answer: Actually the recruiter could care less about brand! Of all the things the recruiter will look for, personal branding is on the bottom of the list. There is no position description where someone’s polish and shine is part of the job unless it is as an actor or model and even then the technical skills of the profession come first. There is no Boolean search string used by sourcers that includes the adjectives normally used to brand an individual. There are no networking questions where this topic is discussed. There is no situation where shiny beats talented. Period!

Having put this in the light of reality, honestly it would be irresponsible and misleading to say that someone’s reputation or brand is totally unimportant. If personal attributes of an individual play a part in the hiring process where does it fit in and what are the important factors to consider?

Job match always comes first. Unfortunately, the ideal candidate usually would be the one that could be created from pieces of DNA taken from many candidates. The perfect candidate does not exist. Usually the ones that display the greatest number of matching characteristics and the fewest non-matches will result in an opportunity to interview. The dimensions of the job are measurable and each candidate can be evaluated relative to the others. The last factor to be considered is organizational fit which can not only be the deciding factor for determining the best candidate it can also be used as the discriminator to dismiss others. This is where culture meets personal brand. It is a rare case where someone will seek to join a company with no meaningful work to do simply because of the brand. Similarly, a company will not choose personal brand over competency. Lady Gaga was not “Born That Way” as her song would imply. She is an elegant branding of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta into the star that we see. All the glitz, glitter and glamour of her career would not work if she did not possess the talent to pull it off. Without the requisite skills for her craft, she would not be on stage in spite of any attempts to make her famous.

Most branding cat fights happen between two opinionated people who argue about two different meanings of personal branding without knowing or listening. It’s especially obvious in a Twitter chat session and fairly easy to determine who is speaking from a position of knowledge and who is speaking the universal language of Yadda-yadda-yadda. What is a brand anyway? To understand something that is supposedly this important would seem to be a prerequisite to using it. The word itself comes from Old Norse brandr similar to Old English brand meaning “to burn.” When we speak of a commercial brand we are referring to the trademark or the legal attempt to burn an indelible image of the company in the minds of consumers. What we refer to as a personal brand is much more flexible and lacks the permanency sought in company brands. Probably a better definition of brand as it relates to people could be the identity associated with an impression or reputation attached to a person, their career and their actions. The personal image we call brand is a result of both unintentional factors such as gender and race, and conscious attempts to alter flexible traits such as habits and personalities.

A personal brand cannot be created. – All people have a brand image. It began when they were in utero and does not end until it is etched on their tombstone. Even before birth there were assumed characteristics of the individual that are for the most part unalterable. From that point forward, everyone has a personal brand even if they don’t want it. Like most things in life, planned progress is always better than leaving things to chance. In order to alter image it is necessary to adopt the philosophy of making things happen instead of just letting things happen.

Image can be manipulated toward the positive. – Focusing on the things that make favorable impressions on others can be a little tricky since it cannot be assumed that everyone thinks alike. This is probably the reason that it is always good advice not to discuss religion or politics because publicly professed thoughts will leave a different impression on different people. It is necessary to find a generally accepted norm of behavior and consistently follow it. Inconsistent actions can be seen as negative.

Damage control in image maintenance is difficult. – Everyone knows how a vicious rumor can spread in a small town even if it isn’t true. Gossip is harmful and usually cannot be controlled. Today’s social media has made the world a small town and unthinking actions on the part of the individual can do more harm to a reputation than any item, fact of fiction, transmitted by someone else. It is almost impossible to cover up indiscretions that could make an individual unhirable. Just like a blanket covering a corpse, it is usually possible to recognize that there is a dead body underneath.

Preventive maintenance of image is essential. – A personal brand is a living, breathing entity that needs to be constantly massaged to keep it in shape. Since the sum of actions both good and bad contributes to image, there is a never ending balancing act to make choices to go in the right direction. Knowing that some actions will leave scars on the body of reputation means being careful not to go that route. Words communicated through speech or in writing have to be chosen with care not only to be politically correct when the occasion calls for it but also to enact the planned image.

Image is not permanent but evolutionary. – Most people will have more than one career in their lifetime and in our society what we “do” is often interchanged with who we “are.” Relationships change over time as parents, offspring and colleagues take on different roles relative to the self image. Personal brand identification is measured by the eyes of others rather than the usual foggy mirror image. Constantly measuring, refocusing and building on the foundation of the past image creates the desirable future image.

The purpose of focusing on image goes beyond self. – Obviously, the primary reason for personal branding is to market that image to consumers willing to buy it. Like any form of communication, it is important to know the target audience and tailor the brand not only to the reflected self image but also to the eyes of the ultimate client. If there is any proof that personal branding is of little consequence to a job interview it would be this: It is impossible to target every company. A schizophrenic brand which shows inconsistency and lack of focus can be as detrimental as a bad brand.

A job search is all about marketing one product: Self. The time to concentrate on personal brand is not when beginning a job search but before, during and after. In summary, there are a few key rules for keeping on track.

  1. Image is important but it will never offset shortcomings in other areas.
  2. Personal branding matters but it will not guarantee that a jobseeker will get a job.
  3. Time is a valuable resource to a job seeker and hours budgeted to branding are hours not available for other activities.
  4. Working on polishing the image is an ongoing ritual and not a one-time shot.
  5. Research is important in tailoring the message and measuring its effectiveness. Anything worth doing is worth measuring.

Polishing a car will make it look better, but it is the stuff under the hood that makes it go. Shiny cars do not go faster than dull ones if both are in the same mechanical condition.  One important side effect to driving a beautifully waxed automobile is that it makes the driver feel good. Likewise, people who are happy with their image will be more confident and convey a positive attitude to others. A smile can be the best personal brand enhancer and it works best when it is spontaneous and not planned.

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Photo credit: Copyright © 123RF Stock Photos



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    • Cyndy Trivella on June 13, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Wonderful post Tom! I am in total agreement with everything you state here.

    Personal brand is simply our traits, characteristics, words we choose along with how and when we use them, appearance both virtual and IRL, manners, point-of-view, and those qualities that were drilled into us by our parents. As we grow into adulthood, how we choose to manipulate these is a decision that can either present us in a good light or not. When I think personal brand, I think one word: reputation. To me, this is the most sacred and precious possession, along with good health, that we have. It’s also not something a person can manipulate at will when needed then put on a shelf when it’s not needed for a greater gain.

    Building a personal brand (reputation) takes a lifetime of work and is an organic being that needs to be nourished and attended to every day. I know people who have ruined his/her brand by letting go of the control needed to keep it polished, as you say. Every action, every day serves as another “brick” in the house of reputation. That brick can either provide additional support or be the brick thrown through the window that damages our reputation house.

    In regards to job seekers and their reputation, it certainly will matter when it comes time to gauge work culture compatibility and any discrepancies uncovered during a background check. However to your point, no it will not be the force du jour that gets your resume to the top of the pile. Skills, experience and education are still going to trump everything else.

      • Tom Bolt on June 13, 2012 at 10:15 am

      Fantastic comments, Cyndy. I knew that the entire topic could not be covered in one blog post, but you always seem to be able to take it to the next level and that does us all a world of good. We all know wizards who are not the same behind the curtain as displayed in their public persona. I’m sure there are people who disagree with our opinion as well, but I think that I can take the heat…it’s my brand.

      BTW, you are a very articulate writer. We would all be fortunate to have your thoughts in a blog somewhere. Or I could just give you the topic and let you write my blog. Next up is The True Meaning of Passion if you can come up with something better than what I have in the can.

  1. “You must be authentic” is the common pablum that is written or spoken by experts with respect to personal branding. Let’s Merriam-Webster the word (just showing the definitions that are related to personal branding):

    3 : not false or imitation : real, actual

    5 : true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

    Ah, being authentic is being who you are and doing what you say you do in public – or at work – when no one else is watching. Sounds like a pretty lofty standard to me.

    So how many of you REALLY are authentic as a professional?

    Personal branding is, as Tom writes, giving a rusty junker a great new paint job before selling it; what about taking the time to fix the rusty panels, Bondo the holes, buy and install new wiring? Oh I’m sorry – it takes time. But you don’t have time; you need a new job right now. Oh…I see you haven’t spent years developing – as Cyndy wrote – developing and cultivating your reputation.

    Know what it means to have a great reputation? It means you’ve succeeded over time. It means that you also failed – but took the time and made the effort to ameliorate damaged relationships. It means you’re humble and always learning. It means that when someone actually calls you an “expert” you truly don’t believe it because you know that learning and growing is a never ending process.

    Social Media experts have conned you into believing that with a few deft swipes of a keyboard you can create a solid brand for yourself. Perhaps some can; most can’t.

    Tom, Cyndy, and I have a combined 2,000 years (okay, perhaps not that many) in HR, recruiting, communication, and social media and we know for fact that a brand can collapse with ease if one doesn’t continuously cultivate it with sincerity, hard work and lifelong learning.

    Are you willing to do the same?

      • Tom Bolt on June 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      Ok, leave out the part about 2K years of experience (I’m not THAT old) but that paragraph is probably the most meaningful in the whole stream: “…a brand can collapse with ease if one doesn’t continuously cultivate it with sincerity, hard work and lifelong learning.” Everyone has a brand, you can’t create it in a vacuum and you certainly can’t maintain it without those three magic words, MORE HARD WORK!

    • Cyndy Trivella on June 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Tom-thank you for your kind words, but you never have to doubt your skill at writing… it’s top notch!

    Steve, you are a poet with a rare skill to get to the heart of the matter.

  2. I see it this way – your credentials and experience, the ‘rational’ brand attributes, are the table stakes that a recruiter will look at to get your foot in the door for the interview. Without these you will not even be considered. So making sure you LinkedIn profile for example includes the keywords for these credentials is critical. But, once you get the interview this is where your personal brand, your character, your unique value – the ’emotional’ brand attributes need to be communicated. So it is a complete package so to speak.

      • Tom Bolt on June 26, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Great comment Peter. I like the term “rational brand” that is later supplemented by the “personal brand” to get the job done.

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