Diana asks “How do I build my personal brand while still working at my corporate job? How can I convince them there isn’t a conflict of interest?”
This conundrum isn’t unique to personal branding, it exists in the workplace whenever the topic of training, of any sort, is brought up. It’s often expressed by telling of a fictional exchange between a CFO and CEO, or in cartoon form like this:
Many employers intrinsically understand that it’s important to invest in employees if for no other reason than to let them know you care about their professional goals and are trying to help them progress. That will improve retention. But it’s one thing to invest in productivity training, which has such an obvious benefit for the employer (more productive employees, duh!), vs. helping an employee build her personal brand. An employer might ask:
- Why would I want to invest in an employee’s brand instead of the company brand?
- Won’t investing in the employee’s personal brand make her more attractive to outside offers?
- Isn’t all this personal branding stuff just a distraction from getting real work done?
These are logical, reasonable questions to ask. I’ll answer them one by one, but there’s one thing we need to get clear on first.
Your Employee Already Has A Personal Brand
Your employee already has a personal brand, the only question is what you, as an employer, are going to do about it. Employers often miss out on the opportunities associated with the personal brands of their employees because they compare personal branding to company branding, but there are key differences.
Company or product branding is like a stool with three legs; 1) time, 2) money, and 3) design. If one is weak, the other two legs can compensate, but rarely can one leg support the stool by itself.
Note: A brand is more than a logo, and design as a leg of the stool refers to more than just designing a logo, but for the sake of making the point I’m going to simplify this example.
Take Coca-Cola, for example.
With the exceptions of the original 1886 and the rather disastrous 1985 experiment, the Coca-Cola logo is terrible, at least in terms of design. It’s a complicated font which, while distinctive, is difficult to read. It gets worse when you put it on any sort of background that isn’t a plain color. Adding a curvy swoosh line only adds complexity to an already complex design. However, add 100 years and a few billions dollars, and the design actually changes. Not that the design itself has changed, but our perception of the design has changed such that the design itself might as well have. The aspects of the logo that made it bad, now become strengths.
One of the primary differences between branding a product and branding a person is that in an executive’s mind, the product does not exist without the brand. Imagine trying to launch a product like Coca-Cola by selling it in plain bottles with no label and building that into a multi-billion dollar corporation.
However, when someone joins your team they already have a personal brand, even if they themselves don’t know it. They’ve been working on it since they were a child, because while in the corporate world a brand is strongly associated with proactive work done to build the brand, a personal brand is more aligned with what Jeff Bezos says a brand is:
Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.
People had already tagged your employee as a certain type of person long before you hired her. Perhaps she was already known as “That woman who can do amazing front-end web development work,” or maybe people would say “She knows everything about marketing, she’s a wizard at it.”
Why Bosses Should Invest In Employees’ Personal Brands
Q: Why would I want to invest in an employee’s brand instead of the company brand?
A: Because they are one and the same.
When your employee came to work for you, she brought her personal brand with her, and that brand rubs off on your company. If you hire lots of marketing wizards, your company will become known for marketing wizardry. If you hire people who love taking care of people, your company will get a reputation for great customer support.
“But wait, those benefits come from the skills those employees have, or the work they do well, where does a personal brand fit in?”
Consider this statement from Laszlo Bock, who managed hiring at Google:
When employees trust the leadership, they become brand ambassadors and in turn cause progressive change in their families, society, and environment. The return on investment to business is automatic, with greater productivity, business growth, and inspired customers. – Laszlo Bock, Work Rules
Bock has said elsewhere that there are only two reasons why employees stay at a job; 1) the quality of the people they work with, and 2) the feeling that the work they do is meaningful.
Therefore, a strong reason to invest in personal branding for your employees is to advertise the quality of the people working at your company as a method to attract more high quality people. If you run a marketing agency and want to be known for marketing wizardry so that the best marketing wizards are coming to you and begging for jobs, what’s going to get the word out better, faster, and cheaper…creating a job listing on a website that says you like hiring marketing wizards, or by investing in your employees so they can speak at marketing conferences, write blog posts about marketing, be active on social media in discussions about marketing, and publish books about marketing? The first route tells people what you want them to know, the second option proves it.
Want to attract the best talent? Invest in the personal brands of the talent you have.
This is just one benefit of investing in your employees’ personal brands. Others include:
- Humanizing your company, which leads to better sales since people prefer to buy from people they know, like, and trust, rather than faceless corporations.
- If you’re small, it makes your company look larger and more established, because “Man, I see your people everywhere!”
- If you’re big, it makes your company look more personable, because #1 above.
- It establishes your company as the leader in your space, because your people are leaders in their respective spaces.
- It leads to positive PR, SEO benefits, and in many cases is much, much more affordable and effective than investing in an external influencer marketing campaign.
Investing In An Employee’s Personal Brand Increases Retention
Q: Won’t investing in the employee’s personal brand make her more attractive to outside offers?
A: Yes, but it will also make her more likely to turn them down.
As stated above, and as confirmed in a research paper by Scott Brum at the University of Rhode Island, which explains that training improves employee investment, increases reciprocity, and helps the employee identify with the organization. “The result of this will be an organization that is better able to retain its workforce,” Brum says. This would happen with virtually any training, but there’s something even more powerful when it comes to training your employees on personal branding, because when you proactively engage and assist your employees to build their personal brands, your company brand becomes part of their personal brand. This can lead to even greater retention. Here’s a story to illustrate how this might play out.
Imagine Lisa just got an entry-level job at a swimming pool supply company. Lisa knows nothing about this business, she was only hired because she’s inexperienced and therefore cheap, the job doesn’t require much more than basic competence, and Lisa’s friend already works at the company and recommended her.
At this point, you may think Lisa probably doesn’t have much of a personal brand, but she’s known by her friends as being sociable and talkative and when she was hired her boss noticed how comfortable she was in her own skin.
During the first six months on the job, Lisa doesn’t stand out. She causes no problems, and doesn’t accomplish anything amazing, either, although she seems to do just fine in her job. However, she’s soaking up information, becoming more and more knowledgeable about the products she’s dealing with.
One day, all three phone support people are out of the office for one reason or another. The boss is in a panic and figures it would be better to have Lisa, untrained as she is, on the phones rather than nobody. Lisa is willing to help and feels like she knows the products pretty well, so she agrees to fill in. She does fine, with only a few minor hiccups. Then she’s asked to fill in again, and again, and when the company needs to hire a fourth phone support person, Lisa is the logical one to fill the role.
Six months later, Lisa is a full-blown expert on every product the company makes. She’s been answering questions eight hours a day, five days a week, and knows just what to say. Customers love talking to her because she’s so friendly and knowledgeable.
Then the boss comes to Lisa with an idea that seems a little scary. There’s a luxury homebuilder’s conference coming up, and they want someone to do a presentation on the top 10 pool supply products for luxury homes with pools. Normally the boss would do this type of thing, but he’s already booked for something else. Lisa agrees to do it. She’s excited, but also a bit terrified.
Lisa finds a few books on Amazon about public speaking and doing presentations, and also watches some online videos. She’s confident talking about the products, but she’s used to doing it over the phone and isn’t sure how she’ll do in front of an audience.
The day of the conference comes and Lisa is nervous, but she gets through her presentation and the crowd loves it. She’s friendly and personable on stage, just like she is on the phone, and people sense that she knows her stuff.
A week later, the boss is talking with a friend who’s also in the pool industry, and the friend says “Wayne, I saw your gal Lisa at that conference, she was really, really good on stage. Have you considered building up her personal brand as an expert in the industry and having her do more speaking?”
Wayne hasn’t had a chance to think about it, but he’s thinking about it now. He’s always thought he was the only one who could speak at conferences, but if Lisa could do it, that would mean they could cover twice as many shows, or that he could do half as many presentations himself…either way, it’s an attractive idea. He talks to Lisa about it, and having had a taste of it she’s excited, she really loved the in-person interaction at the event she attended, and she also enjoyed the respect she got when people came up to her after her presentation and talked to her as though she were an expert.
Wayne and Lisa start to plan out how to build Lisa’s personal brand and use it to build up the company. They buy more books, they invest in more online courses, they even hire a speech coach. They buy a camera, start filming short videos of Lisa answering questions, and post them on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. They also start posting separate videos on LinkedIn, documenting the process of building Lisa’s personal brand, and are surprised at the response–not just from people interested in building personal brands themselves, but from pool owners who first tune in because they’re interested in how to build a personal brand, but when they see that Lisa is becoming “The pool supply gal,” they also want to buy pool supplies. In some cases, it’s not pool owners, but home builders and pool supply product companies that want to partner with Wayne’s company.
Two years later, Lisa doesn’t answer the phone anymore, they’ve hired 10 new people to keep up with it, since the company has grown quite a bit, thanks to Lisa’s videos and the other content she’s creating. Lisa is traveling a lot to conferences, talking about pool supplies, but also to marketing conferences to talk about building a personal brand. Wayne has given her raises, and they’ve even talked about her getting a slice of equity and her becoming a partner in the business.
And so I ask you…how likely is Lisa to leave Wayne’s company? Sure, she’s got lots of opportunities out there, but she’s “the pool supply gal.” She could teach people how to do social media, how to do video, and how to build their own personal brands, but she can command a higher income in the pool industry where she’s built a genius zone, an intersection of social media marketing and knowledge of the pool supply industry, and nowhere is that genius zone more valuable than at Wayne’s company. She also feels a sense of loyalty to Wayne because he’s invested in her and hasn’t held her back but has supported her every step of the way.
But even if Lisa does leave at this point, so what? She’s brought huge value to Wayne’s company, the investment has paid off 10x, and if he’s smart, he’s investing in other employees’ personal brands and building them up, just like he did with Lisa.
Personal Branding Is Real Work
Q: Isn’t all this personal branding stuff just a distraction from getting real work done?
A: Yeah, it is, if “real work” means following a job description that doesn’t include growing the business.
What’s your goal as a boss? If you work for someone else is it to get a raise? Climb the ladder? Get better and more interesting work? Then invest in your employees’ personal brands.
Maybe you’re the boss. You’re an entrepreneur, the owner, or a partner. What are your business goals? Do you want to grow your business and sell it? Have a cash cow? Double your take home pay? Then invest in your employees’ personal brands.
Or perhaps you run a non-profit charity and success isn’t measured by dollar signs in your bank account. Maybe your metrics revolve around lives impacted and your goal is to change the world. Then invest in your employees’ personal brands.
I’ve already shown you with Wayne and Lisa’s story above how it can work, and it can work in any business or organization. If you define real work as actions that help you achieve your goals as a boss, then personal branding is real work.
How To Invest In Personal Branding For Your Employees
What worked for Wayne might not work for you. The fundamentals are the same, but the specific tactics change depending on the details. Here are four steps to get you started:
- Involve your team. If you create a grand plan and then do a big reveal and tell everyone to get with the plan, it’s going to work about as well as any other plan you introduce this way. Buy-in is key, so involve those whose buy-in you need, and maybe a few others, from the beginning.
- Choose an objective. Hint: It’s probably in your mission statement. Whatever the primary goal of your business is, that’s the goal with having your employees build their personal brands. If you have departments that have unique mission statements in addition to the overall company mission statement, then there may be opportunities to build employee personal brands based on those departmental objectives.
- Educate yourself. Buy books, watch videos, attend conferences, hire a consultant or coach…learn all you can, every which way you can.
- Create a platform, not a mascot. The wrong way to invest in a personal brand is to come up with a vision of an ideal spokesperson, a mascot, and then try to find someone to fit that role. That’s called advertising, like Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady. That’s not at all what we’re trying to do here. Instead, we want to provide your team with resources and training to build their own personal brands, a platform of tools they can utilize to help them. Try to control this process too much and you’ll stifle the very creativity that is going to produce the results you want.
Is there more to it? Yes, lots, but this is enough to get you started down the right path.
A Note For Employees
Back to that original question from Diana. Now that I’ve given the longer answer, here’s the shorter one–show your boss how investing in your personal brand is in his best interest. Find out what his objectives are, and then show how you can help him accomplish those objectives by building your personal brand. If he has concerns, don’t dismiss them, tackle them head-on and work to resolve them. And if you think it will help, share this blog post with him.
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