Developing and preserving your personal brand – yes, you have one !
A personal brand is short for: how do people perceive who you are, based on your behaviour, based on what they see? Sometimes people are not aware of the disconnect between how they perceive themselves, how they want to be perceived, and how others perceive them.
Being a student is soooo hard
On 17 October I gave a talk at NUI Galway about “Developing and Preserving Your Brand”.
I chose to be a bit provocative, to shake them out of their boredom. After all, students themselves joke about having the attention span of a goldfish.
I told them “So – presumably – you go out drinking every night; when you go home after college you like to settle down to watch Judge Judy; you probably brag about staying up all night before an exam and not studying the rest of the time. And you haven’t a clue what goes on in the real world anyway.” (Cue laughs in the audience – apparently I hit a nerve)
“Tell me – why would I want to employ you?” Indeed, that’s what every employer is thinking, make no mistake.
All the cliches above are not only widely held views about students, but they themselves would issue them, bragging to their peers, etc. In other words, those cliches are their generic “brand”. Not a very good start in your career, is it?
So if students are happy to offend themselves by spreading these views, well, I was prepared to offend them into listening to me. The funny thing is that I was only mirroring back to them what they often portray to society. It worked, and we had a good laugh together.
But what use is a personal brand, anyway?
You could think a personal brand is only for celebrities, who are in the public eye all the time. Think of Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck – he was the only one to wear that, it set him apart, so much so that now we have that automatic association in our heads. That is successful branding.
You are already working on your brand, whether you’re aware of it or not. You are already disseminating your brand in the public domain. It’s called “updating your status”.
Facebook says it all
I showed the students a screenshot of a Facebook status update : “Gonna pull a sickie today – too hungover to go to work!” I said to them “Imagine I’m your employer and I come across this on your Facebook profile. On your CV you say you are responsible, reliable, punctual, loyal…” That drew a lot of laughs, again. Apparently I was spot on…
The problem is that sometimes you cannot choose who perceives what – once it’s in the public domain, that’s it, it’s public.
There is an app on Facebook that lets you see a collection of your statuses over a month, or a year. That collection of status updates compiles an image of you. The addition of all those status updates, piece by piece, status by status, shows an aspect of yourself – and for many people around you, this is all they perceive of you. If you were a stranger, and happened to find your profile, what would you think of yourself?
Now think of it this way: if you were an employer, and happened to find your Facebook profile, would you hire yourself? “This is so unfair!” you might say. Well, yes, because it’s only one side of yourself. But it’s the one you chose to broadcast. And unless you were purposefully lying when you wrote those status updates, or your profile was hacked and somebody starting spreading lies, your Facebook page does say something true about you, even if it’s not the whole picture.
You yourself created this image of yourself. Nobody forced you.
Whenever you press “update”, ask yourself: “Would I be willing to stand over this in a job interview?”
How do you separate yourself from the masses?
Developing your personal brand has a lot to do with standing out, with separating yourself from the masses. Why would somebody hire you, rather than all the other people who showed up for the same job interview? What are they getting when they’re hiring you? If they are not getting anything special, anything that a hundred other job applicants couldn’t give them, why would they want to hire you?
A lot of people panic and think, “But I’ve nothing special to offer – I’m not particularly talented, I’m not gifted, I’m not a genius… I’m just another ordinary person!” This is where you are all wrong. People don’t want to hire an Einstein. People want to hire whoever is able to solve their problem.
If you want to get that job, show them that you are the solution they have been waiting for.
Now your panic goes up one notch – “But how do I do that?!” The answer: don’t be generic, run-of-the-mill. Be multi-faceted. There are many ways you can do that. What are your hobbies?
A good way to stand out is to join a member’s society. The students I was talking to at NUIG have a wealth of “Socs” to choose from. Join one or two, depending on what your interests are, or what you want to know more about. You don’t have to already be fascinated by a topic to be allowed to join a society. Being curious is reason enough.
Then when the interviewer asks “Why did you join that society in college?”, instead of saying “Huh… Don’t know, don’t remember…”, you will be able to say “I was interested and wanted to know more about that topic, and rather than worrying about not knowing where to start, I thought that joining this society was one step in the right direction. I would meet people who were also interested in the topic, hopefully people who knew more than I did and would be able to teach me what I didn’t know.”
There you are, just by joining that society you demonstrated a willingness to recognize where you can improve and to act on that insight; you demonstrated that you are teachable, willing to try different things, willing to admit that sometimes you don’t know, and willing to act to know more. As an employer, I find this very promising indeed.
Many people “talk a good game” in an interview. This is a constant worry for employers: “What if I don’t get the employee that they tell me they are?”
If you can demonstrate, on the basis of factual evidence, that you have displayed those attributes in the past, you are already way ahead of those who just say “I take the initiative, bla, bla, bla.”
All those little things add substance to your character.
In my case, I joined the Business Society, which led me to meet my first employer, which in turn had a large influence on the direction my career would take. I was often inspired by entrepreneurs who came from all over Ireland to talk at society meetings, and I participated in some great discussions, nights out and trips abroad. That’s a serious “return on investment” for joining a society!
Look inside, be yourself
If you think you have nothing to give, that you have no contribution to make, think again. You need to take a good hard look in the proverbial mirror and examine who you are. “Know thyself” has been a popular slogan since Socrates for a very good reason. We all have a contribution to make.
And very often, while we’re trying to come up with the million-dollar idea, our real contribution to the world has been staring us in the face all the time, but we didn’t see it. Your own personal outlook on life is your biggest asset.
Take a grown man, for example, who is a fan of fairy tales and comic strips. He doodles animals, and also princesses and witches. Then he decides that it would be a wonderful idea to recreate this fairytale universe on earth, to build it from scratch on a real plot of land. This man is clearly out his mind, isn’t he? I mean, an adult doodling mice and dogs and ducks? A grow man dreaming about fairytale princesses? He can only be a failure, right?
Only this man is Walt Disney, and the LaLa Land he imagines grows on to be one of the biggest commercial successes of all time! He only did what he knew how to do: he took his fairytale view of the world from his imagination and put it on earth.
There is an awful lot of value to what goes on inside your head. But because you are accustomed to it and live with it every day, you don’t see how new and exciting it is.
This is how I became a positive economist. To me, looking for the glimmer of hope, for the silver lining in economy news, taking what is and looking for an opportunity to make it better, has always come naturally. So I thought it wasn’t anything special. I just went and did it, since it was the thing I knew how to do.
And suddenly people start calling me the Positive Economist and before I know it I’m a brand. Now I realize what it is that I do differently, what is that specific something that I bring to the table. But I thought I didn’t know any better, until somebody gave me the title and I grew into it. I didn’t think I had anything to say in the public domain until somebody called me the happy economist.
What makes you different is keeping your eyes open. You don’t even need to work at setting yourself apart: just look inside, really look inside, listen to how other people respond to your views, and that is all you need to do.
But who would want to hire me anyway?
At the end of my talk a student came up to me and said he had enjoyed the talk – and then he asked the question that was really the reason he wanted to talk to me. “I want to work in media”, he said.
Then he went on: “But it’s so hard to get in!”
“Oh is it? Who told you that?” I said.
“Well, is it not difficult to get a job in the media?!” he said.
“I don’t know, I know that I didn’t find it impossibly hard to get a regular radio slot, and then another, and regular TV interviews…”
“But there is no company that would be interested in having someone like me…”
“So you’re telling me!”, I said, “You’re the one telling me that, nobody else told me so!”
And I feel with him. I used to have the same barriers in my head about exporting. I used to think that my services couldn’t be exported, that my company was too small to export, that no foreign client would be interested in what I had to say – an Irish economist, of all things! I had all those barriers in my head about exporting – and yet they were not there!
Before you say you can’t do something, before you say something is impossible, give it a try. You will see that testing an assumption takes much less effort, hard work, and time than you think.
I thought I couldn’t export. I called up Marion Jammet. Not a whole lot of effort or time or money risked. And as one small step after another turned into a career-changing journey, I knew I had been wrong.
All it took to test my assumption was a phone call.
Before you sabotage yourself by saying something is impossible for you – think of the smallest possible step you can take to prove yourself wrong.
Sometimes it’s all it takes.
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