Personal branding is all the rage, but it has its hidden downsides as well. As I prepare to give my Living an Extraordinary Life presentation for Harvard Business School’s alumni webinar series, I am realizing that personal branding can become an impediment as well as a benefit. Many of my mid-career friends have discovered that today’s expertise can be tomorrow’s problem. Here’s how.
Your Brand Becomes a Platform
The big benefit of personal branding is that it helps you stand out from the pack. If you are the Time Management guru, that’s powerful. People who want or need time management know to come to you. When you’re introducing yourself, you only have to say, “I’m a time management guru” and voila—people have a very quick way to fit you into there scheme of things.
Your Brand is What They Say It Is
Like any brand, your brandedness is in the minds of your audience. You may want with all your heart to be “the turnaround CEO” but if people who know you think of you as “Chainsaw Al,” it’s the chainsaw that will stick.
The good news is that sometimes you can find your brand by simply asking people. They’ll tell you how you are perceived and you can build on that.
Since your brand lives in the mind of your market, you can only be branded with a concept your market understands. For the first decade or two of the coaching profession, saying “I’m a coach” meant nothing to people. Everyone in coaching first had to define the brand, then fit themselves into it. That’s a lot of work!
If you invent a new term, it can be fun to talk about, but its career usefulness is limited. “I’m the Bumble Bee of creativity.” Anyone who doesn’t hear your explanation has no clue what a Bumble Bee of Creativity may be, and whether they should embrace you or run for the fly swatter.
Your Brand Becomes a Straitjacket
But there’s a problem. Most of us will have several distinct careers during our work lives. Some of us will change because we love to master new fields. Others will have to change as technology displaces more jobs. We retool and retrain, but our brands can limit us and make it very hard to change careers.
Once people know you for something, it is astonishingly hard to change their minds. I started my career as a software engineer and architect, designing complex software systems. Twenty years after writing my last professional program, some people still think of me as a programmer.
People also want experts, and we define expertise as narrow experience. They want to see a resume with 20 years’ experience in one area. If your entire brand is Sales Trainer, it won’t be easy to become Project Manager, no matter how well you can do it.
Most tricky, navigating the career change brings the old and new you into conflict. “What do you do?” is the opening question at every business event ever. What if you don’t know, yet? What do you say? Do you introduce the Old You? The Transitioning You? The New You (that may still be speculative)? Here, your old brand can be a powerful magnet, especially if the Nww You isn’t yet defined.
Choose an Extensible Brand
You can make your career more flexible by thoughtfully designing your brand up front. Think carefully about how flexible it is or isn’t. You have to be specific enough that you can build your current reputation on it. But if it is too specific, later change becomes hard.
If you think you’ll change industries someday, build your brand around a transferable skill set. “I’m the Restaurant Franchise Project Manager Extraordinaire” implies an industry: food franchising. “The Awesome Project Manager,” however, can easily shift to new industries.
If you think you’ll change your skills, build your brand around an industry. “The Financial Industry Super-Investor” can start out giving stock advice, move into derivatives, and then later rebuilding wealth after bankruptcy.
If you plan to be a true Renaissance Person, moving between industries and skill sets, good luck. I would love to know how you make it work. I haven’t found an easy answer, yet.
Build your personal brand. Make it strong. You’ll get known for it far and wide. But choose carefully, since the vividness that makes it liberating can also make it dangerous.
Stever Robbins is an executive coach, serial entrepreneur, strategic thinker, public speaker, technologist, personal productivity Podcaster, author, television commentator, Master Trainer Elite of NLP, and musical theater writer and performer. He soon hopes to help save the world from global warming. Or something else. He is currently in transition. Does it show?