Building an authentic personal brand starts with ‘why?

Two weeks ago, I was asked to participate in an event about personal branding. The organizer asked me to focus specifically on the link between creating a personal brand and remaining authentic.

Because I have been irritated by the majority of the publications on this topic in the last 5+ years, I was excited to speak about it. Why? Because these articles often suggest people need a partial, or even full, make-over, in order to fit the mold of the specific environment they seek employment in. If that does not feel natural to them, the second piece of advice most publications give them is: ‘Fake it until you make it’.

Not only do I think that such makeovers are often not sustainable, I also think they take away the unique value that individuals can bring to the workplace.

You cannot not have a brand

At the event, the first question from one of the members of the audience was: ‘Why do I need to have a brand?’. An excellent question. My answer was simple: ‘You cannot not have a brand’. Just as any product or company has a brand, individuals have a brand as well.

Every product and every company is perceived by its (potential) customers as having certain positive and/or negative characteristics. For example, a particular airline can be seen as ‘very cheap with a lousy service’, another as ‘luxurious and very reliable’. In much the same vein, human beings have perceptions about other human beings, e.g. ‘very knowledgeable, but extremely arrogant’. 

Whether these perceptions are right or wrong is irrelevant. They exist. And, what is even more alarming: they are formed in an extremely short timeframe, based on almost no data. 

Therefore, having a position in the workplace, or applying for one, means you need to be aware of the fact that you have a brand, whether you want it or not. The only question is if you are aware of your brand and actively try to manage it, or if you choose to neglect it.

Start with Why

One of the more interesting management books I have come across in recent years, is ‘Start with why’ by Simon Sinek. The key notion of his book is that people will only ‘buy’ a product, service or movement, if they understand the ‘why’ behind it.

I believe the same is true for individuals.

If individuals understand their personal why, they can create a much stronger personal brand. The reason? Because they will come across as authentic.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Mark Zuckerberg or Greta Thunberg have or had completely different messages for completely different audiences, yet they all have one thing in common: a very strong personal brand. The reason is that they come across as authentic. This means their audience believes these individuals believe in what they are saying; whether this is bringing a nation together, confronting China, fostering the interests of Turkey, vehemently defending Facebook against all criticism, or protecting the planet. 

Our why makes us unique

I once did an experiment with a group of business school students. First, I asked them ‘what’ they wanted to achieve by following my lectures. All students agreed that they wanted to obtain a passing grade.

Secondly, I asked them ‘how’ they wanted to achieve this. This question already provoked different answers. Some students wanted to study hard in order to obtain a high grade, others preferred to ‘optimize’ their efforts, i.e. do the minimum required to pass, others gave an answer in between. 

However when I asked them to answer ‘why’ they wanted to obtain a passing grade in order to complete their studies, an amazing variety of answers was given! ‘I want to start a company’, ‘I am the first member of our family who went to study’, ‘I want to be respected in society’, ‘I want to make it in the entertainment industry’, ‘I want to be able to support my family’, ‘I want to move into education’, etc.

What I learned from this little experiment is that all of us have a personal ‘why’, a ‘why’ that makes us unique and can serve to differentiate ourselves if and when required.

Get started

There is a lot more to say about the topic of personal branding, however starting to reflect on, and being able to articulate our ‘why’, seems to be an excellent starting point. Not only will a sense of our why help us to come across as authentic, it will also help us to differentiate ourselves in today’s crowded marketplace for talent.

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