I guess the first question to answer here – is it? Do we have to package ourselves like a commodity on a grocery shelf? Does your service need to be instantly recognizable like Netflix or Uber? Is going down the rabbit hole of endless self-promotion actually give you a sense of control or actual control in a digitally disrupted job landscape?
These are some of the questions that came up when speaking with others on the topic. The fact that there were always strong and polarizing reactions about Personal Branding sparked my interest to take a deeper dive. I made the decision to spend the past six months taking courses, conducting interviews, reading all I can on the topic trying to make sense of it. After all, as an Entrepreneur and a Freelance Consultant reaching the midway point of my career, is this a new skillset that will be necessary for one to develop?
First, let’s define what Personal Branding is. According to Wikipedia- Personal branding is the conscious and intentional effort to create and influence the public perception of an individual by positioning them as an authority in their industry, elevating their credibility, and differentiating themselves from the competition, to ultimately advance their career, increase their circle of influence and have a larger impact.
When you read a jargon-filled definition as above it is completely understandable why it’s so easy to neglect one’s own personal brand or even the very idea of it. I mean come on, isn’t career advancement based on having a solid reputation that’s built through years of delivering good work and being nice to people? Does today’s digital environment really make it possible to pretend we have a reputation without putting in the work? Perhaps people are starting to focus more on building their “brand” to gain some sense of control as our virtual worlds expand or perhaps, they are starting to feel their careers threatened by the speed of technological advances. Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that our present culture is now based much more on style than actual substance. When I think in these terms, Personal Branding is easy to call bullshit on and label it just a superficial and self-important way to approach your career. I would also be inclined to say that instead of crafting your blog, headshot, or next tweet you should be more concerned about your overall character which will eventually define your reputation that in turn will be a big factor in how well you do, career-wise.
The problem with that kind of idealistic thinking is the fact that your personal brand already exists, whether you like it or not. Our digital reality has diluted the notions of reputation and character by putting extra weight on spinnable concepts such as photo quality, number of followers and reviews. We all know by now that possible future employers google you before they think of hiring you and that we look for on-line reviews when we are thinking of buying from you. The truth is, anyone that may end up working with you in some capacity wants to get a good idea of your work, your personality and even what others have said, before even responding to your email. If nothing exists, it could be just as bad as having the wrong information show up. Just like the clothes you wear, how you communicate, the ideas you share and the things you make, your digital footprint represent you regardless of what you want to believe.
Now let’s consider what’s happening in 2020, COVID-19 has increased the speed of digital transformation by fundamentally changing the nature of work and what that does to the equation. Suddenly, we are all ushered into the world of teleworks, virtual meetings and unfortunately, a new reality of furloughs and layoffs. Boards and CEOs, who were until recently soconcerned about creating a culture of shared values are now starting to fully embrace the idea of all freelance workforce because it allows them to build more flexibility and resilient organizations at lower costs. A recent Forbes article stated, ‘The freelance revolution is large and growing, COVID-19 and the shift to remote has been an accelerant”. While another study published by Upwork.com revealed that the freelance workforce is growing at a rate 3x faster than the overall workforce and by 2027, freelancers are expected to make up the majority of the U.S. workforce.
Ok, now let’s try to recap all this. The future points to a labor market where more than half of us are self-employed freelancers, consultants or entrepreneurs facing more competition than we could even have imagined from all corners of the globe. We will continue to telework, advances in tech will make it easier and more efficient. It’s probably safe to say that people will continue to make a snap judgment on the merits and value of our work based on what they see online. So, in this reality, if you want to get past that initial Google search, you're going to want to craft and deploy a personal brand that accurately reflects who you are, what you believe in and what you are capable of. I started to see, pretty quickly, that the question is no longer IF you should have a personal brand, but if you choose to guide and cultivate the brand yourself or to let it be defined on your behalf.
Here is the kicker, it is not as easy as those 7, 9 or 10 steps frameworks touted by motivational gurus all over the web make it out to be. My own experience was something akin to the pressure of having to create a viable start-up that should be sustainable for the rest of my life while at the same time going through intense psychotherapy. I believe to do this right you really need to get to new levels of honesty and self-awareness in order to figure out existential questions such as who you authentically are, what you truly care about and where you want your life to go. Pretty Ironic huh? That the personal branding process actually forces you to take a pause, reflect and ask yourself all those questions that you were too busy in your ‘career’ to think about. I found it really to be less about branding and more about aligning yourself with your true nature so that your days are filled with more energy, you are able to work with more passion and your life generally, has greater sense of purpose. So, to answer that first question; Yes! Personal Branding is important but perhaps not in a way you had first imagined. Guess Oscar Wilde was warning us about the looming hyper-competitive future were differentiation will be paramount when he stated, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”