Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolution for 2015: Value People, Not Personal Brands

Do you look as good in real life as you do in your LinkedIn profile photo?

Odds are, if you’re like me, you probably don’t.

It’s because we’re all concerned about personal branding, right?

This concept has grown in importance in recent years and reached a crescendo for me recently when I read, “How to Promote Yourself Without Looking Like a Jerk.” It’s a good article, too, filled with useful advice (SPOILER ALERT: “It’s essential to express humility”).

I was disconcerted, however, when I realized this wasn't posted on Buzzfeed; instead, it was an article in the Harvard Business Review.

There are now so many rules and demonstrated best practices that “personal branding” is taught in our classrooms, and not just for the benefit of business students. Even Kevin Hart recently schooled Sony in the concept.

But isn’t there a point when there are so many rules that they become at odds with the authenticity that’s needed to truly create a personal brand and achieve some form of influence?

In a favorite scene from the 1999 cult classic “Office Space,” a waitress and her manager at a restaurant called Chotchkie’s discuss why she is required to wear a minimum of 15 novelty buttons on her suspenders to express herself and show “flair.”

Is social media influence the 2015 version of Chotchkie’s flair, where knowledge workers and professionals are being judged and measured by Klout scores and proprietary algorithms?

I know… we should all be concerned about personal branding. It can be a necessary job skill and communications tool. I blog, I post here on LinkedIn and often on Twitter, I flat-out enjoy Instagram, I flirt with Google+. As a PR rep for a large company, I see many others doing the same.

But I also see professional journalists and writers and PR experts under greater and greater pressure to create personal brands and measurable influence.

I wonder, is all this personal branding headed for a jump the shark moment? Some monumental, irrevocable privacy hack that will make everything that comes after it seem silly?

In an age where everyone in the pack is trying to demonstrate flair, where is leadership? Perhaps it's found among those who truly inform, advocate, educate, entertain, build, repair, create, comfort or invent. And perhaps even David Ogilvy was wrong when he said if you can't be brilliant, you should at least be memorable.

I think the whole concept of personal branding has been overblown, and that the fewer personal branding rules there are, the better.

As a resolution for 2015, let me suggest a model from someone who recently spoke to the Verizon social media team.

Justin Foster, branding strategist and author of “Oatmeal v Bacon,” pointed to three universal truths that are now amplified by social media. He expressed them in the negative (one rule was, “don’t be stupid”), but I like the positive corollaries better:

  1. Be interesting.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be smart.

If we're all trying to focus on any of these three things, I don’t think anyone would ever have to worry about their personal brands.

Oh, and one other rule… be sure to have a talented colleague like Theo Carracino snap your LinkedIn profile photo surreptitiously, and from a distance.

After all, I don’t think my smile would be authentic if I was posing.

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