As somebody with a strong background in marketing, I am continually amazed at how difficult it is for most people to market…themselves. With the exception of those professionals who have marketing related careers, this is just not something that comes naturally. Fortunately, I have discovered four almost universal anxieties that keep everybody, at one point or another, from getting started with the process of “self-branding.” Overcome these four obstacles and you will be well on your way to success:
1. What will people think?
I know this seems counterintuitive. After all, what is self-branding if not the act of taking proactive control over exactly this question? Nevertheless, people get hung up on this before they even get started. They think that friends or colleagues will interpret a sudden and radical shift in one’s online persona as a cause for concern. Impending unemployment? Midlife crisis? Most people—and by most, I mean everybody—also are concerned about what their current employers will think; namely, that a sudden shift in self-branding is going to signal job dissatisfaction or even disloyalty.
I have two simple responses to this. In the first case, go slowly. You do not need a complete and massive overhaul to get yourself on track. After having reviewed hundreds of online profiles, I can honestly say that most people only need smart, targeted adjustments, usually wording related, to get themselves moving in the right direction.
In the second case, simply talk to your manager or your employer about the subject directly. Explain to them that you want to better align yourself, and your current work activities, with where you see yourself 2-3 years into the future, and your profile is a critical part of that. Seek their advice on how to do this while also serving your employer’s branding interests.
As a general rule, the secret to good management is to make sure that your employees feel they are serving themselves and their own career while at the same time providing value to you, their current employer. Most good managers would welcome this conversation since it leads to greater motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction. You may even find that this leads to a wider conversation about training and development opportunities, to help you reach mutually shared objectives. By getting the subject out in the open, you are also implicitly demonstrating that nothing untoward is taking place.
2. I don’t know what I want…
This is a big one. The secret to success is a commitment, and the secret to commitment is to first know what you want. If you do not have a vision, there is no way you will be able to successfully brand and market yourself. Indeed, I would dare to call this “the mother of all problems”, and it is surprisingly universal.
Nothing is going to work for you unless you first sort this out. The human mind, when programmed properly, is like a heat-seeking missile. LinkedIn functions the same way. But without a vision or a destination, your life, “programming”—as well as your LinkedIn programming—is just garbage in/garbage out. Get clear on what you want, develop a strategy, and then implement it.
Years ago, a manager once told me that I was “drowning in the big picture” and he was right. Do not let this happen to you, too! You do not have to know all the answers or where you want to be thirty years from now. Just break it down into small pieces. Look at the parts of your professional life that are optimal, and those areas that you want to improve upon, and think in terms of 6, 12, and 24-month goals. Like any heat-seeking missile, you will be continually readjusting your course, and your goals are going to shift and change along the way, too.
No plan of attack ever survives contact with the battlefield, but you still must have a plan.
3. I know what I want, but there are too many ways to brand myself!
In German, they have a saying for this: Die Qual der Wahl. It roughly means the punishment, torture, or agony that accompanies many choices. And that is exactly how most people experience this process: as an exquisite and paralyzing agony.
There are just too many ways to say the same thing and too many subject matter areas that we all excel at in the modern, cross-functional workplace. How do you know which areas to highlight, which you should consolidate, and which to drop completely from your online persona? And once you get clear on all of this, how exactly do you find the right verbiage for what remains?
Remember: your online profile is not a resume, and it is not a CV. It is much more akin to a business card. So, think in terms of the basic structure (Top Line Descriptor, Industry Vertical, Summary, Current Job Description), be mindful of your 6, 12, or 24-month goal, and try to get the puzzle pieces to fit. The good news is that once you have a clear vision there is an almost infinite number of good ways to organize the same data or to tell the same story. The bad news is that most people are paralyzed by this. Why not reach out, at this point, to a colleague or outside expert for help? It is going to be much easier for an outsider to look at your current resume and your future goals and quickly determine what to nix or highlight because an outsider does not have the emotional stake in your past that you do.
4. How do I determine whether to connect with someone or not?
Congratulations, you have mastered steps 1, 2, and 3! Now we encounter the final obstacle: how do I determine whether to connect with someone or not? Indeed, figuring out who you are and where you are going is pointless if you do not also have a strategy for expanding your network and disseminating your profile. You can have a wonderfully crafted profile, but if your connection strategy is entirely random, we are back to the garbage in/garbage out problem. There are many schools of thought about this, but in general, most people are best served by a power network. While the LinkedIn open networkers focus entirely on the number of contacts and power of raw numbers, a power networker is going to be more discriminating. Do you have to know somebody personally, or have actually worked with them? Not necessarily, but there should be a clear reason in your mind why this person is valuable to you. Perhaps they work for a company you would like to work for in the future. Perhaps they are a bridge to another individual or network of other individuals. Perhaps they are an influencer in your industry. There are many good reasons for connecting with people you have not met before, but there should always be a strategic rationale that guides you.