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Career strategy and the overweight nicotine addict*

(*aka personal branding and career growth, and having the courage to change)

When we think of brands, we think of companies: Coca-Cola, Apple, McDonald’s and Microsoft are all brands that immediately spring to mind. But branding can also apply at a much lower level, too – to ourselves. As we develop our careers, and our personal and professional relationships, how we are perceived by everyone can help or hinder our progress, and the personal goals we may want to achieve.

There are numerous parallels between how companies’ brands are perceived and managed, and what we need to do as individuals to nurture and evolve our own personal brands. Understanding the importance of branding, and how the principles of effective corporate branding can be applied at a personal level, make for interesting comparisons.

Branding – perception is everything

Each year Fortune magazine conducts an annual survey of the “Best Companies to Work For.” The names that consistently appear at the top of the rankings are invariably familiar – Google, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Apple and Nordstrom all regularly feature on the list.

Generally around a month later, Fortune releases its annual “Most Admired Companies” list. A number of the same companies in the “Best Companies to Work For” ranking also feature prominently in the “Most Admired Companies” list (and often in very similar positions on the two ladders).

Inevitably, these companies that achieve strong parallel rankings are also:

  • Very profitable
  • Growing, and doing so at a pace that outstrips their competitors over the long haul
  • Showing consistently strong accretion of value for all of the organisation’s stakeholders

From a brand perspective, these parallel companies offer stories that are informative – they have incredibly strong brands and a very high ratio of engaged people working in the business. People who have contributed to the evolution of the brand and are walking billboards for the companies’ priorities and the promises those companies make to customers – they absolutely live the brand on a daily basis within a culture that revolves around the customer’s relationship with the brand.

This high level of pride and customer focus, coupled with great performance and strong brand leadership, has helped the firms become ranked amongst the most admired companies (read: brands) in the world.

This is why companies invest time, effort and money in their brands – it’s a critical investment in competitive markets and provides tangible returns on investment and marked points of differentiation. Brand-driven companies have all found the right formula for delivering on their brand promises – for bringing their brand to life on a daily basis, and driving tremendous levels of external success as an outcome.

What relevance a brand?

Exactly how powerful can a brand be?

There is no doubt that one of the true contemporary masters of building incredibly powerful brand promises (and delivering on them) is Apple. So how does that translate into results?

Apple has built a coterie of zealots, fanatics and fans - people who have an amazing allegiance to the Apple brand. This was superbly demonstrated on June 29, 2007 when the much-hyped and much-anticipated iPhone finally went on sale. Apple partnered with AT&T to launch the iPhone (AT&T was the sole network service provider for the iPhone). Hundreds and hundreds of consumers queued up outside Apple stores across the States to be amongst the first to purchase an iPhone. What resonates most strongly in this event is this: despite the fact that consumers could walk to nearby AT&T retailers (with practically non-existent queues) and buy their iPhone there, more than 90% of buyers chose not to, preferring to get their iPhone from an Apple store. That is phenomenal brand equity. The fuel company that cracks that particular code first will boost earnings by a staggering amount.

If it works for companies; it works for people too

In the sense that most people want to build surety in their future and achieve meaningful value for themselves, individuals need to focus on their “brand” in much the same way that successful companies do.

The importance that your “brand” plays in achieving your long-term objectives is indisputable. You need to know how to (and then take control of) the defining, designing and growth of your brand – executing your brand values to build what might be best called “personal brand equity”: executing to achieve the stuff that you have defined as important for yourself. This stuff is personal (and personally important) – people might go about it in the same way, but the outcomes will be personal and unique. This means that there is no template approach available. You have to invest the time to build a solution that is relevant and meaningful for you.

Personal branding is about stepping away from commoditisation. A strong personal brand (much as with a successful company brand), set in the context of too much choice, becomes the shortest and most efficient/effective path for employers to decide who advances, and clients to decide who succeeds (that is, who is perceived as capable of doing, delivering and achieving more value than others).

There is not so much a mystical secret to personal branding, but to do it effectively there are four key things to understand:

1. No one else can do it for you. It is your investment in your career. No one can expect others (friends, employers or colleagues) to invest in developing your career if you have not consistently demonstrated a willingness to make the personal investment – it’s all about ownership. And, you will ultimately need help from others.

2. Be patient. At a minimum, it’s a medium term project and, as such, an exercise in deferred gratification – some sacrifice now for greater future gains.

3. It isn’t easy, and to be successful you will likely need to make some (or a lot) of changes, but the sooner you start, the quicker the results.

4. You need to be very honest with yourself once you have established where you want to head your career (and life in general for that matter).

Branding vs. “making yourself indispensable” and other career-killing strategies

Make yourself indispensable. Strive for work/life balance. Avoid politics. These are supposedly the secrets of success and happiness. The only problem is that they don't work. In fact they fail spectacularly.

Indispensability means that you are stuck where you are and cannot be promoted (you are indispensable where you are!); work/life balance guarantees that someone else who is willing to go the extra mile will outshine you and reap the rewards... both at work and at home; avoiding politics leaves you at the mercy of those who are willing to play. It’s time for a new perspective. None of these “strategies” builds distinction or results that matter positively. They are impediments.

Knowing what to do is not the main answer, aka “Career strategy and the overweight nicotine addict”

As I was writing this blog, I started to make some connections with some thoughts I had had a couple of weeks ago regarding career development and personal branding, and, in particular, a “six degrees of separation” link to me.

Formulating and executing “strategies for personal career development” is an easily tossed around phrase, so much so that to a certain extent its cachet has devalued. Strategy is an interesting word and an even more interesting concept – often confused with outcomes, actions and/or objectives (not to mention a bunch of other unrelated items), but it’s not that mysterious a subject when you peel back the layers.

Both personally and professionally, we already know (for the most part) what we need to do in our careers. Generally, we know what we need to do, why we should do it, and by and large how we should do it. We also desire the benefits of these things (bigger salaries, great promotions, more status, greater sense of achievement, etc.). Yet we often don’t change (well, most of us, anyway).

Some six months ago I discovered I have Type Two Diabetes, which I was more embarrassed about than anything else at the time. Dealing with it is reasonably straightforward. I know what I need to do: lose weight, quit smoking, and take regular exercise. That stuff is obvious and I didn’t need a specialist to tell me that it is what I need to do. Thus the only important question is: “Have I made the change to my lifestyle that is necessary?” The answer is “partially”, which realistically means “no”.  So, the next (and more important) question is: “Why haven’t I done it?”

The main reason is that the rewards of change are in the future (and sometimes the distant future). The investment and sacrifice need to be immediate (the discomfort, disruption and discipline). I need to make the right connection between the two – and it is my responsibility, no one else’s.

The necessary outcome of my (and anyone’s) personal branding strategy is not the things I need to do, nor how to do them, but the resolve and determination to do them. Which of my daily habits am I really prepared to change? Which lifestyle changes am I really prepared to make?

These are no different to the questions I need to apply to my career and personal brand. They are also the same questions that companies need to ask, and the successful ones already have (and provided the right answers). They are the ones that consistently populate the upper reaches of Fortune’s rankings.

Personal branding is real, it’s hard (if it was easy, there would be a lot less overweight smokers in the world), and it is definitely worthwhile, but it’s your life and you need to make the calls on what you are prepared to invest now. No one can do it for you.

The bottom line...

...is that, whether you like it or not, you already have a brand (good, bad or otherwise). Rightly or wrongly, people (friends, colleagues, staff, managers and clients) are judging and interacting with you based on their perception of your brand. Perception is reality – if you don’t like the perception, changing it is your responsibility.

Tim Bell is HR Director based in Intergen's Wellington office.

Posted by: Tim Bell | 22 September 2008

Tags: Career, Personal Branding

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