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.
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I love the idea of a meritocracy! It’s a glorious myth that makes a wonderful story. But if you look at how resources, wealth, prestige, etc. get distributed, it’s very hard to make a case for meritocracy.
It’s no surprise we believe in meritocracy. We spend our entire first 18-25 conscious years in school. School is a true meritocracy. The more you work at mastering the material, the more you earn good grades. I don’t know about you, but school was the last meritocracy I had the privilege to enjoy.
At my very first job out of college, I was told, “You do the best job of anyone here, but you’re too young to be making any more money.” Sadly, I persisted in thinking that doing a good job was the way to get what I wanted out of life. I still think that way in my gut, even though I continue to see little evidence of it.
Many very successful people talk a lot about meritocracy and how they just worked hard to succeed. That’s all fine and good, but they’re looking at only their own story. They’re not looking at the vast majority of people in the world who work very, very hard, and don’t get rewarded nearly as well. I’ve also noticed that the people who are highly successful/rewarded/prestigious have a tremendously powerful psychological vested interest in believing in and trumpeting the idea of meritocracy. Otherwise they would have to confront the idea that maybe they don’t deserve all that money/power/fame, and it simply came to them because they were born to the right parents, or were in the right place at the right time.
In capitalism, we give the bulk of the value created by an enterprise to the owners. It’s far better to own 50% of the equity in a successful company that you left 6 months after founding it than to work your ass off for 12 years making that same company a success, but working on salary. What matters as far as material reward isn’t the work/merit, but the capital and ownership structure. (That’s a true story, by the way. The company founder never worked again. The employees, while doing reasonably well, are still working at the same or other companies to earn their daily bread.)
If you want to do a good job, by all means, do it. Personally, I like to be proud of my work, and I strive to do the very best. But don’t confuse that with getting what you want. When you’re designing your life, remember that producing good work may be something you do for the psychic and self-esteem rewards. When you’re going after other rewards, say, money, be as clear-headed as you can about what will help you reach that result. Hard work and skill may not have anything to do with living the kind of life you want.
I’ve recently noticed that many entrepreneurs hire a “marketing person” and then end up with someone who doesn’t do what they expect. Sometimes it’s because they didn’t realize what “marketing” means. Other times, it’s because the person they hired didn’t know what marketing means. Here is a quick guide to understanding the difference between professions that are distinct, separate fields, but get confused, because the titles are so often misused:
Marketer. A marketer decides what market a product will be sold to, how the product will be described to make it stand out from its competitors (called “positioning”), and how it will be priced. A market is a broad set of people who might want to buy the product that can be reached by the company. “Every adult over the age of 25” is not a market, because there’s no way to reach every adult over the age of 25. “Single women between 18 and 35” is a better market because there are magazines, TV shows, web sites, and other venues where members of that group hang out. Those places—often called “channels”—are how a company can reach that market.
A marketer also chooses the message to send to a market. Whether to say “We’re the lowest cost pony rental service in town” or “We have the only purple pony east of the Mississippi” is a marketing decision. The first message will appeal to members of the market who care about price. The second message will appeal to customers who care about … purple.
Salesperson. Marketers deal with defining the product. Once the market is identified, the salespeople actually go out and convince people to buy. The marketer decides, “We’re selling private jet memberships to corporate CEOs.” The salesperson drives out to the country club, finds a CEO, and says, “Would you like to buy a private jet membership?”
Note: the “junk mail” and “spam” professions are often called “direct marketing.” Those professions are rarely marketing; what they are is sales-at-a-distance. Very few people I’ve met who do direct marketing spend much time defining their market and competitive strategy. They spend their time selling.
Copywriter. A copywriter writes the text that will appear on a web site or in an advertisement. Text must accurately represent what makes a product unique and appealing to its target market. Knowing takes a marketing perspective. If it’s ad copy, it must also persuade. That’s a sales perspective. The text must also be clear and well-written. That’s a writing skill. You’ll do best with a copy writer who has good writing skill, and the perspective appropriate to the piece being written. A website “about us” page may require a marketing perspective, while a product sales landing page might require a sales perspective. Don’t assume the same person can write both kinds of copy. Also, don’t assume that a good salesperson or marketer can write good copy. They’re separate skills.
Designer. A designer makes things look good, and creates a certain feel using visual design. The designer will choose your website layout, your fonts, and so on. Designers need to know enough about your site to create the mood you want. That mood, however, is usually decided by the marketers, and it should send the right signals to the target market. Marketing would decide “We want a cartoony, happy feeling because we believe that will appeal to single women between 18 and 35” or they would decide “We want a professional, elegant feel to appeal to single women between 18 and 35.” The graphic designer would then create a look, feel, illustrations, etc. to make that impression.
These are different skills, and they often require different people to get them right. But when you get the right marketing, powerful salespeople, killer copy, and a great design, you’ll build a much stronger, more powerful business than you would otherwise.
Related article: Ten Cultural Career Lies
This page is a companion to my audio program about how to write a cover letter. I would like to express extreme appreciation for the brave job seeker who gave me permission to use his letter for this program.
You can download the audio program here.
Due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to finish editing the audio, so
the current version may have some starts and stops after minute 9.
The original cover letter
The revised cover letterNote The revisions are far less important than the reason behind the revisions. Listen to the audio for that! Then read this example, which shows how the points in the letter above can be related directly to employer goals and outcomes.
It’s my birthday today! I thought up a rather fun way to spend some time celebrating. Here’s my game:
Think of your age 10 years ago, 20 years ago, etc. and write down all the things you appreciate about the younger “you.” Spend some time pondering what’s been constant, what’s changed, and how that younger “you” contributed to who you are now. This is an exercise I’m designing for a speech on Living Your Life for younger people. If you’re willing to share, please chime in. What did you like about younger-you? What’s been constant? What’s changed? (What, that you thought would be constant at the time, changed?)
Our final performance for Creating Cabaret: Storytelling Through Song was last night. My 1st time singing solo before an audience. The high F#s in my piece are well within my range, but they’re also just at the point where the slightest relaxation of my frame causes them to break. Hit every one, and my ending note (F#) filled the room. My Professor said afterwards, “You caught the bug. I can tell.” She is so right…
During our dress rehearsal, I’d been sitting in front of the stage watching one of the other performers and while I was being a perfectly good little doobie, listening to my compatriot’s song, my sneaky, dastardly brain offered up a thought: “This is where you belong.”
The last time I had that thought, it scared me so much I (inadvertently) used self-hypnosis to wipe out every memory I had of performing, including the seven years I spent doing comedy improv. I think this time I’ll keep it and find out where it leads…
Hi! For my book, I would like to gather a set of beliefs that govern how people operate in organizations. I’m especially looking for beliefs that really drive people’s behavior, decision-making, etc. Contradictions and alternate viewpoints welcome and encouraged. For example:
- Never help out a colleague too much, because they’re just competition for the top spot.
- Always help your colleagues, because when we work together, we accomplish more than when we work alone.
- Our competitors will never be able to produce a product as good as ours.
- Management is stupid and doesn’t know what they’re doing.
I will be using these in my book. By submitting them here, you give me permission to do so. I would like to list everyone who contributes in the acknowledgements section. If you wish to be acknowledged, just sign your comment with your desired name (first name, full name, etc.).
Today’s podcast is about how to be self-promoting without being a jerk about it. I think it’s one of my better podcasts. What do you think? Should this be expanded into a chapter (or part of a chapter) in the book?
If so, do you have specific examples, questions, stories, etc. that you’d like me to elaborate on? This could be done as a pretty brief topic, or as a pretty big one…
Update the handout again to include a slightly reformatted Happy vs. Successful diagram and a list of my web resources: ten-cultural-career-lies-v4
People liked the “Ten Career Lies” so much that I’ve decided to share my “How to Write a Cover Letter” audio, “before” and “after” cover letter text. I created this page so I didn’t have to have the same cover letter discussion with two dozen MBA coachees every year.