One of the most significant developments in modern-day professional networking and career development and advancement has come through the concept of personal branding. The personification and adoption of a “personal” brand allows the individual to commodify their services in much the same way as a company selling B2B or B2C solutions.
Personal Branding 1.0
For those who are relatively new to personal branding, the basics essentially involve taking your name, who you are, what you do, and rolling it up into a neat, presentable package to give out to potential employers, clients, professional contacts, companies, and the public at large. This often involves having all those things you would see a company have. A website, a certain style, personal logo, representative colors, motto or slogan, mission statement, vision, statement of purpose, business cards and letterhead that include these elements, just to name a few of the basics. In fact, it’s probably pretty easy to feel skeptical or even overwhelmed by all of this and clearly it’s not meant to be done all at once. A few articles I read for instance, talked about colors. What color best represents your personal brand? There is a whole science behind choosing the right color — just look at the famous company logos you know about. Color is a very important part of the company’s image, logo, and overall personal brand. The minutiae can indeed be very elaborate to someone who’s dedicated to having a complete, well thought-out personal brand.
In the end, those who have mastered the principles behind personal branding leave nothing to chance and everything that defines them is presented in a unified, consistent manner. Everything belongs together and it looks smart and very professional.
Personal Branding 2.0
Many people stop when they have achieved all the steps and goals involved in establishing their personal brands. They have their website, their logo, their slogan, and life is good. However the social networking revolution has brought the next chapter in personal branding. What good is a personal brand with no exposure? SEO, Blogs, interconnected links, and a significant presence on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google Plus have become an important part of the next chapter in personal branding. Having a professional Blog gives individuals increased credibility amongst their peers and in their respective industries. Connections to industry leaders, companies, individuals and peers on networks like LinkedIn broaden horizons by increasing exposure and providing new opportunities both professionally and socially or personally.
Personal Branding 3.0
When I started to write this article, I said to myself, “Is there such a thing as ‘Personal Branding 3.0’? Is it actually a ‘thing’?” Well, it turns out that is isn’t so much. A couple of bloggers have used the term but it really isn’t unified by any sort of agreed-upon definition. At least one LinkedIn user has said that while personal branding 2.0 was all about Blogging your profession, that personal branding 3.0 was all about blogging your passions. Fair enough. And even if we haven’t gotten as far as 3.0 yet, and most people are still on 2.0 (or 2.01 beta) or what have you, I want to take the entire personal branding concept into the next, logical phase. This is why I’ve bypassed “3.0” and gone straight to 4.0. But I can’t very well just skip over 3 without at least explaining why I’ve chosen to do so. Onwards!
Personal Branding 4.0: Collaborative Networking
What is collaborative networking? Once again, we are getting into strange territory with terms like this because they can be used in very different ways by different individuals and companies. A Google search for “collaborative networking” yields some interesting results (and only about 124,000 hits) but nothing quite like what I’m thinking of. Some elements were along the lines of what I was trying to express, but not entirely. In most cases, this term is used within the context of companies as an internal, intra-net definition to talk about project management or cooperative efforts between departments, divisions, or modules. I don’t want to mistake that with collaborative networking as I see it in terms of personal brands.
Until now, the driving ideas behind having (and being) a personal brand has been largely shaped by western philosophies of individualism and the role of personhood as the most important element in the world. We each are the centers of our respective universes, which we then interlink together with connections (like on blogs or connections on LinkedIn, for instance). But it still comes back to the nucleus of the network, which is ‘ME’. MY network, MY connections, MY job, MY friends, MY groups, MY blog, MY brand, and so on. In spite of how social we may have become with social networks, we still insist on isolating ourselves both creatively and professionally. There is still a general, widespread inability for people to understand the truly collaborative nature that personal branding may actually have.
As a simple analogy, just think back to any awards show you’ve ever watched on television, where actors or singers receive some prize, like the Oscars or Grammies. Have you ever seen someone come up, take their trophy and NOT thank at least one other person, whether it be their mother, their agent, their lawyer, God, friends, family, and quite often a litany of people that clearly had something to do with that person’s success somehow? I have not seen such a person. Very few people would come up to receive an award and say, “Thank you. I earned this sucker on my own. I have no one else I’d like to thank because I did it all myself.” And if such a person did exist and said this, they’d be lying (mostly to themselves). Nobody is so isolated and insulated from others that they can truly say that they’ve achieved everything on their own. This of course has been echoed and repeated many times, in many ways, and by many people, most of whom are probably far more intelligent and experienced than me. But the fact is, the message doesn’t truly come through when it comes to professional development and personal branding. Why not?
For starters, I find it very interesting that so many people are surprised (some even in negative ways) when they find out that I don’t always do all my own networking. When they find out that it’s my wife sending a message on my behalf for example, they say, “You know, it should really be your husband who should be saying this, and not you.” Now, I understand the sentiment here — but I could not disagree more! Let me get this straight. I’m supposed to take all this time to build up my personal brand…. Everything from a logo, to a motto, and even right down to the color schemes on my website, so that I look like, act like, and present myself as a professional company… And then when I have my personal assistant help me by introducing my brand to others, I’m doing it all wrong? By that same logic then, no company should ever have spokespeople, PR departments, personal assistants, office clerks, receptionists, and entire front-line TEAMS that put forth the company’s public face! Using that line of reasoning, every CEO should only ever speak for themselves and no one else! If the personal brand is supposed to portray such a professional image, then why the surprise when I leverage the very best resources in order to achieve my goals?
Let’s say you are trying to establish your own personal brand. If your strong point is not web design, then why wouldn’t you get a professional web designer to create one for you to make it top notch? If you need a photo of yourself, why would you just use the self-timer on your camera and pose in your back yard? Why wouldn’t you get a pro photographer and get a shot that looks stunning? If you can’t draw well, why wouldn’t you have someone in the graphics design business put together a sleek logo for you? Why would you even print out your own, cheap, inkjet, pre-perforated business cards when you can WOW people with something from a printing studio? These are all ways that we leverage the best tools at our disposal to promote our personal brand 1.0.
But how about personal branding 2.0? Again, why would I NOT leverage the best tools at my disposal to represent my brand on my Blog? On social networks? To recruiters and company managers? With clients? If I have the option of doing so then, why would I not make use of a personal assistant to maximize my exposure, opportunities, and professional presence? In that regard, if I could afford it and thought that it would be beneficial, I’d hire an entire marketing department for my personal brand!
As far as my own personal brand goes, I could already roll credits just like at the end of a movie, listing all the people who have helped me professionally. I am very indebted to many people who have helped me thus far… Everything from web design, to technical advice, editing, proofreading, suggestions on content, color, design, you name it! I’ve had friends, family, my wife, my co-workers, professional peers, career coach, university professors, all help out in various ways, and many of them continue to do so behind the scenes. There is no point at which I can comfortably say: “This brand represents ME alone.” In fact, that just may be my next website addition — a public “acknowledgements” section, crediting some of these very fine people!
As I mentioned before, I can certainly understand when people say to me that I should be doing certain things in the way of networking (rather than a personal assistant)… When it comes to hiring time and job interviews, I will be the one interviewed — not my assistant. And yet, that is another interesting quirk that makes me wonder about whether we’re not going about it all wrong. If we are going to recognize that no one is an island, then why do we hire people as if though they were? It would be most non sequitur to ask someone to bring in his wife at a job interview. Or his children, or neighbor. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were legal ramifications that would get you sued if you tried such a thing. But is it really so far-fetched to want to have some level of knowledge about a job candidate that transcends the typical, non-revealing stock questions and answers that everyone prepares for? Even the so-called “STAR” interview process has many notable limitations. Maybe an interview should involve spending a day at the zoo with the candidate and his family. Or a road trip with a candidate and his two best friends? I understand that this is precisely why employers tend to ask for (and call) references, but that really only pays lip service to the concept. Anyone can say, “Yes, Bob worked for me at ACME Co. Good worker. Positive fellow.” But it’s entirely another to see how Bob interacts with his team members and others around him on a daily basis, even if it’s just how he interacts with the barista at Starbucks when he orders his tall soy iced caramel macchiato.
Thus far, all efforts in terms of personal branding and even social networking have centered around the individual. I believe this will (and should) change to reflect a more organic, community-centered system where the concept of placing the good and needs of the group before oneself, as is seen in traditional Asian (and other) cultures is most important. There are grassroots movements that are moving in this very direction. One good example is Jason Ball of Good People Japan, a networking group on LinkedIn. Jason’s signature phrase when you talk to him is, “How can I help you?” And in this, if people started asking how others might help them, at least in the social networking sense, I can see a future where it wouldn’t be unusual whatsoever to see someone posting something on behalf of another in order to promote that person’s personal brand, for instance. It would be self-evident that a quality-driven, qualified person might be promoted by a peer or friend. But we are so unaccustomed to seeing such networking, that we are quite taken aback when we see it. We are so used to the “me, me, me” individualistic form of self-promotion, that we actually get suspicious when someone would say to us, “Hey, you should connect with my friend Bob! He’s an awesome widget maker who worked at ACME and now he’s looking for new opportunities. Would you consider joining his network on LinkedIn?”
One thing that Facebook has, which LinkedIn really doesn’t, is a “wall” where people can interact publicly on a person’s profile. Such an idea could be well harnessed professionally as well. While there are opportunities to provide endorsements and putting in a good word for a colleague or co-worker, something like this could be expanded tenfold into a networking “zone” where people could effectively give and receive information, much along the same lines as the idea behind “How can I help you?” as asked by Jason Ball. Even something as simple as a “how can I help you?” button could unlock all sorts of potential; the only caveat is getting people to accept the concept, as well as the quantifiable effects when they start rolling through the networks. That acceptance is the lynchpin. That is the “heart” of the collaborative network — being able to accept that people are collaborating, and not immediately questioning motives in cynical, knee-jerk responses. For instance, if John asked me, “How can I help you?” and I responded by saying, “I’d really like to get to know someone involved in the widget-making business. I want to have a meet & greet at a coffee shop with some people who are interested in that sort of thing.” Great! That sets a wheel in motion. John can send an e-mail to his friend Bob, and say, “Hey, Bob. I know someone who is looking for someone in the widget-making business. Would you be willing to connect with him? He’d love to meet you at a coffee event he’s hosting.” This is where we arrive at the crossroads. You’ll have those who say, “Yeah, definitely. Let’s do it!” And then you’ll have those who say, “Um… Why are YOU asking me this? Why isn’t Bob asking me directly?” Now, I could write a whole NEW Blog post just dealing with this alone. Why indeed? It’s a fair question — why isn’t Bob doing his OWN dirty work, right? Quite simply put, we need to just look at it from another perspective… Rather than immediately suspecting that Bob must be too busy or thinking that he sees himself as too important, or maybe even suspecting him of being too inept to do it on his own, I would love for people to give serious consideration to the fact that none of those possibilities are nearly as likely as Bob simply engaging in smart and effective collaborative networking. That’s the whole beauty of this concept though! It’s leveraging our social resources and getting the people who are best-suited to help us in ways that they can. If Bob wants to get into widget-making, it’s quite possible that meeting new people doesn’t come nearly as easy to him as it does to John. So why wouldn’t he make use of John’s strengths to benefit him and promote his personal brand for him?
If social networking is a part of personal branding 2.0 then I think collaborative networking should be a part of personal branding 4.0. (Note that I am still leaping past 3.0 because I believe it’s necessary to reach far beyond what any of us are doing right now and take things into a whole new direction). If we’re going to leverage social networks to their fullest potential, then we must remain social and not regress back into individualism and self-driven goals and ideals. The potential is there but we have to change how we view these kinds of interactions. We need to re-train ourselves and the way we view our social networks… So the next time you receive a message that says, “Bob Smith is looking for new opportunities in the Seattle area,” rather than responding with, “Yeah, well, it should really be Bob Smith contacting me…” You can say, “Awesome stuff! Bob clearly knows the power of collaborative networking. I’d love to meet him. I’ll send him an email!”