Five years ago, asking a CEO whether he or she wanted—or needed—personal branding services would have earned you a raised eyebrow and a polite but emphatic no.
When I started my career as a branding consultant, most of my clients were ambitious entrepreneurs or midcareer professionals who were willing to invest the time and money in boosting their personal brands. Top-level executives, however, often demurred, reasoning that they were busy and already as prominent in their industry as they needed to be.
But in an ever-intensifying job market, even top executives—I’m talking triple-A talent—have come calling.
The truth is that no one’s job is wholly secure. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the freshest intern or most entrenched CEO, there is always a chance that you could be laid off, replaced, or let go.
Nearly 8.7 million Americans will have lost their jobs by the end of 2021, according to the Labor Department, and many of those roles will be permanently gone. Such job market constriction means that more laid-off workers will need to either pivot their careers or compete for a much smaller number of available roles.
Competition for jobs is fierce. The average job search takes five months, research tells us, and only 5% of applicants are called in for an interview. Candidates have to set themselves above the pack; otherwise, they may find themselves in hiring purgatory, staring at a stack of polite rejection emails.
But how can they stand out?
The answer lies in developing a standout personal brand.
Personal branding is the narrative that we tell others about ourselves, and which others come to accept. A good personal brand increases the perceived value that a person has. If you’re looking for a job, your brand will bolster your chances of being selected; if you already have a position, it will increase your chance of keeping it.
Personal branding leads to significantly greater career satisfaction and perceived employability, research suggests, and it further boosts professionals toward positive career outcomes, such as social capital, financial rewards, and professional opportunities.
Every person’s personal brand is, by definition, unique. A generic formula to craft a perfect one doesn’t exist. However, the following three guideposts will help you take the first steps toward a market-proof personal brand.
1. Make your personal brand about you, not your last gig or employer
Not long ago, one of my clients—an experienced corporate professional who, before her layoff, had a pristine and decades-long track record at a multinational brand—came to me, frustrated by the lack of response she had received from potential employers.
Once she explained her situation to me, I saw the problem: She had spent so much time with her last employer, and she was so focused on what she accomplished for that company, that she had built her personal brand around the company. The company loomed so large that it overshadowed her.
Although name-dropping an impressive former employer might earn you a second glance, making that company the foundation of your professional identity will make hiring managers worry that you won’t be able to adapt to a new organization. It also undermines the point of personal branding:
A personal brand is a relationship with you, an individual who exists separately from your company. The process of personal branding involves finding your uniqueness, building a reputation on the things you want to be known for, and then allowing yourself to be known for them. Ultimately, the goal is to create something that conveys a message and that can be monetized. (Michael Stelzner, Social Media Examiner)
Don’t build your personal brand around your employer. You must highlight your capabilities, interests, and skills; otherwise, hiring managers will never see enough of you to make a fair determination of your potential.
2. Think about what you’re selling
What do you offer, and why is it valuable? Your personal brand should answer those questions. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how extensive your resume is: You’ll be out of luck.
Not long ago, a former sales executive with 15+ years of professional experience asked me to help her pivot into consultancy. She wanted to focus on developing tools for what she called “prospective communications.”
The problem was that clients who could have benefited from her services weren’t calling because they didn’t know what that term meant. Ambiguity kills personal brands. Ambiguous brand names can negatively influence a person’s response to and perception of the brand’s products, psychological research tells us.
If you want to sell anything—even your skill set—people need to know what they’re paying for and why their business will be better for the investment. When people in your specialty don’t think they can make more money or become more relevant from your service, they aren’t going to buy. Your brand should make the commercial case for the investment clear from the get-go.
3. Include accomplishments in your personal brand
Many talented people simply don’t want to deal with personal branding. They might spend an hour updating their LinkedIn or getting good headshots, but they aren’t thinking critically about how they can boost themselves above the competition.
I’ve often had conversations with clients who hesitate mentioning involvement in an amazing project or massive business initiative. When I ask them why it isn’t on their CV, they invariably say, Oh, I didn’t think anyone would find it interesting.
Think through all your accomplishments. Go beyond the basics to figure out what you offer that others don’t, and then make that distinction clear in your branding narrative.
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A good personal brand offers you credibility and visibility. Those factors, in turn, generate more and better opportunities and speed up the decisions that others make about you, your products, and your services.
What could be more critical in our current job market?