A strong personal brand is beneficial on many levels. At the core it differentiates the designer, developer, marketer, etc, from the rest of the pack within crowded disciplines. It functions as a self-promotion agent that works for the practitioner 24/7/365 ultimately ensuring this person becomes a magnet for new and interesting work opportunities.
The foundation of a personal brand is initially created by consistently doing good work. From there, commenting, interacting and reacting in public discussion forums, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and the publication of articles and even books further solidify an individual as a thought leader.
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However, “the idea of personal brand is often associated with independent practitioners”, as David Armano puts it. And for independents there are typically no conflicts as they are in the business of promoting themselves, their skills and knowledge. However, for practitioners working within corporations and interactive agencies, the challenge becomes balancing their personal brands with the corporate brand.
Many opportunities for friction
As a corporate employee you don’t represent “you” out in public — you represent the company. The opinions, theories and expertise you present publicly all get attributed to your employer. If you say something controversial, the story that will propagate is not “John Smith said…” but “John Smith, Lead Developer for Company X, said…” Add to this the risk of disclosing proprietary or sensitive financial information and it’s no surprise many corporations aren’t interested in promoting individuals (outside of C-level executives) externally.
These same corporations are only now beginning to comprehend the power of the social web and don’t understand the need for external “corporate ambassadors”. Colleagues within the organization can also be points of friction as they begin to question whether the now-public practitioner is actually a “work horse or a show horse”, as Christian Crumlish, Director of Consumer Experience at AOL, puts it. If it’s not clear that the company is getting more benefit than the individual, resentment can build causing the individual to start defending their activities.
Crumlish also suggests some companies are concerned that making their star employees visible exposes them to competitive employers looking to poach talent. This alone may make an organization reticent to promote individuals externally.
Finally, if the practitioner works for a less-established brand, there is a risk the personal brand will ultimately outshine the corporate brand. While this is certainly not an issue for global corporations, start-ups who have one or two star employees could face this challenge.
Overcoming these hurdles
The challenges may seem risky but there are some specific ways to mitigate these risks. By following the guidelines featured below, you will be able to convince your employer to not feel insecure or threatened about you strengthening your personal brand and encourage you to participate in public events.
Make your employer the star
To alleviate any concerns that you are attempting to promote your brand more than your employer’s, make it obvious who that employer is and that you’re speaking on their behalf. Any public facing documents you present must have company branding. This includes white papers, conference posters and slide decks. In addition to branding your thought leadership, all online profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al) and blogs should clearly disclose where you work. Finally, all client associations should also be disclosed to minimize the risk of perceived conflicts of interest or favoritism.
Luke Wroblewski, former Chief Design Architect at Yahoo! and Lead Designer at Ebay, who is a popular speaker at many design conferences, ensured all his presentations were branded with the Yahoo! and Ebay logos. Like Wroblewski, Crumlish, a mainstay on the design conference circuit, also made sure he was seen as a “Yahoo! Person” in all of his public efforts.
Participation in conferences is a good way to strengthen your personal brand and solidify yourself as a thought leader. Image source: Fronteers conference
Make your colleagues smarter, bring back learnings
Conferences, meetups and other professional extra-curricular activities provide tremendous learning opportunities. As much as you are a presenter at these events, you must also be an attendee. The opportunities for learning and growth are tremendous. It’s important to capture that knowledge and bring it back to your organization to share with your colleagues.
This shared learning can take two forms. The first is sharing the specific things you learned while at the event. What did the other presenters discuss? How does it relate to the challenges you face as a team? How can it be applied? These are the domain-specific elements you picked up from the other presenters.
The second is sharing with your colleagues how to become more successful and active within these external communities. You’re likely not the only person in your organization who is interested in furthering their personal brand. Bringing this education to your colleagues who did not attend the conference and sharing your techniques on how to become more active on that front helps minimize any jealousy that may develop in your colleagues and positions you as a mentor.
Your employer is now a thought leader
When attempting to convince your superiors to allow you to participate in public forums on behalf of the company, it’s imperative to remind the organization the benefits the corporate brand gets from this exposure. Active engagement in industry-specific forums and conferences gives the company the chance to stand in front of peers as a thought leader and, in many cases, frame the conversation on a particular topic. Brand perception of your employer improves as adjectives like cutting-edge, innovative and supportive (of new thinking) are associated with it.
In addition, both your business development and talent acquisition departments benefit from the corporate brand enhancement you’re facilitating. Every interaction that is publicly available from the employees of a company provides an opportunity to strengthen that company’s public persona. Tweets and blog posts about the kind of work or processes taking place there humanize the company and increase the attraction of higher caliber employees as well as potential new customers.
This may not be obvious at first to your employer. It’s imperative that you showcase these successes internally. Positive mentions for the company in tweets, blogs and post-conference meetings should be forwarded to the organization’s management. When employment candidates express interest in the company, try to make sure that they are asked how they heard of the company. Each time a candidate mentions a public appearance or some thought leadership showcased in an industry forum, make sure your superiors are aware. If possible, quantifying (in dollars) the value of these appearances should further your cause.
High-level talent that is acquired through word of mouth is significantly less expensive than talent acquired through staffing agencies. Also, have your business development team assess the source of new leads and customers to see how many were driven by the company’s public presence. Each one of those leads and customers has a monetary value which, when tallied, can justify the expense of sending you to the next event to present.
Be bold, yet humble
In some companies, your superiors may not see the immediate value of your personal brand. In these situations it may prove more successful to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Write a blog post on an industry or domain-specific topic and share it publicly. If it drives discussion and positive perception of your employer, tell someone.
Attend the next local meetup and present a quick deck on your latest thinking. Did someone tweet about it? Share that with your boss. Was there a strong discussion on your blog that reflected well on your employer? Point your PR person to it. Showcasing the success of a low-profile activities or blog posts should engender some level of support from your boss. One word of caution though: ensure that you’ve consulted your company’s policies on such activities, as Crumlish advises. You don’t want to end up violating corporate policies that could put your job at risk.
Choose the right employer
If creating and maintaining a personal brand is something you value then it’s imperative to view your employer through that lens to understand if your goals align. As your personal brand has been developing and growing, has your employer been supportive? Is there a broad corporate understanding of the benefits you can bring through promoting your thought leadership externally? If the answer is ‘No’ then it may be time to evaluate new opportunities.
Becoming an independent practitioner is the easiest option but may not be viable for everyone. In that case, how much do prospective employers “get” the concept of employee empowerment? This is a discussion that should be clear from the outset with a potential new employer. Set the right expectations in your interviews and, if possible, have public-facing activities that grow both your personal brand and the corporate brand written into your job description. There’s no more effective way to balance your personal brand as a corporate employee than to actually have it as one of your position’s responsibilities.
Ultimately, for the personal brand to grow, the “company should get more value than the individual”, as David Armano said. If that balance is off, then you should consider becoming independent. That doesn’t mean that you cannot create, cultivate and curate a personal brand within a corporation. In fact, a personal brand can be crucial to your continued success and career progression. Be respectful of your employer and their policies but find creative ways to promote yourself while promoting your company at the same time. Personal branding enhances corporate branding. It makes the company appear more “human” and approachable. It makes people want to work there and it attracts good press. If balanced correctly, this is a win-win for all parties involved.