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#SHRM16: Making personal branding practical instead of a movement

Personal branding is simply about managing your career while being yourself in the best and clearest way.

5 min read


Job security


The idea of personal branding is probably centuries old, but it was called other things. Certainly, P.T. Barnum, Queen Victoria and Socrates had something you could call a personal brand, but it’d be weird to describe their renown as such.

What people are usually thinking of is the nearly 20-year-old Fast Company article by Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You.” Love it or hate it (and folks writing for troubled East Coast media companies have not been shy about their reservations), it’s ahead of its time. Consider that Google was a year away from being founded, and Facebook seven years, and yet Peters is writing things like:

the main chance is becoming a free agent in an economy of free agents, looking to have the best season you can imagine in your field, looking to do your best work and chalk up a remarkable track record, and looking to establish your own micro equivalent of the Nike swoosh. …

When everybody has email and anybody can send you email, how do you decide whose messages you’re going to read and respond to first — and whose you’re going to send to the trash unread? The answer: personal branding. The name of the email sender is every bit as important a brand — is a brand — as the name of the Web site you visit. It’s a promise of the value you’ll receive for the time you spend reading the message.  …

Forget your job title. Ask yourself: What do I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished, distinctive value? Forget your job description. Ask yourself: What do I do that I am most proud of?

And yet I understand the concerns about “personal branding.” It’s easily co-opted by charlatans or transformed beyond recognition by meaningless buzzwords. What’s authentic about meticulously crafting and curating your online identity as if you were carving out Mount Rushmore? If everyone stands out, does anyone stand out? Peters himself is a management consultant who tells people not to become a manager; a man who co-wrote a book on “excellent” companies who was wrong about the staying power of most, admits the data was nonsense and still defends that book. So, he’s not for everyone!

So what are we left with? The practical reality. People will need to search for jobs more often than in the past. Many of these jobs will not be filled in the open marketplace, but by leveraging connections and tapping the known entitites (regardless of what companies cliam). People want to be known for what they do but aren’t sure how. People struggle to convey why what they do matters — maybe even to themselves.

People are increasingly worried about being ordinary when ordinary means dispensable.

All of this is prelude to the smart, funny and jam-packed Monday session at SHRM ’16 by Jennifer McClure, who talked about personal branding from a general standpoint as well as from some of the challenges facing HR professionals.

McClure also sought to dispense some of the misconceptions that have built up, including:

  • Personal branding is not about image management.
  • Personal branding is not just something to be used when you need a job. It’s about career management.
  • Personal branding is not just for others; “sometimes we have to believe in who we are” before others will.

For HR, the added danger is that because their organization may view HR as more of a supporting player, that they may not want to stand out lest their outshine the organization. There are two counterarguments, one being that HR needs to be a leader in organizational change and the changing world of work. The second, as McClure told SHRM: “Who would you rather have working on your team as the HR leader – someone who is known as a leader in their profession, mentors other professionals, and has developed a reputation as a thought-leader or innovator; or someone who works mainly behind the scenes and implements other’s ideas.”

Creating a personal brand statement doesn’t have to be complicated; you don’t have to brag too much; and you can always revise it. You can even have fun with it, as in this statement McClure shared.

What matters, McClure said, are a few — dare I say practical — components. Among them:

  • Make it understandable and memorable.
  • Think of three words that describe you. Ask others for three words to describe you.
  • How does your statement support a larger goal?
  • The word that matters most in personal branding is “The” — what are you “the” go-to person for?

And she provides a helpful template for getting started: “I am ____. I help ____ do or understand ____ so that ____.”

And if you’re uncomfortable thinking of yourself as a brand, that’s OK. As McClure said in a 2015 interview, ” My advice is to simply be you in both personal and professional circumstances. …  I think you’ll have the most positive impact if you can identify the people and situations where you don’t have to constantly suppress who you are.”

You won’t get it right the first time, either. McClure said she’s been working on her personal brand statement for 15 years, and it’s still not perfect. That’s good news for the rest of us — just focus on what you can do today for a better tomorrow.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and original content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, HR executives and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.