One of the biggest challenges facing those Americans under 40, and even some that are older, is the transition in the American economy from a nation of manufacturers to a nation of creatives. In this economy, freelance artists, designers, and software developers working from home and coffee shops are the face of the new workplace where company loyalty and a long-term career in one field or with one employer are a thing of the past. A decade ago, it was the company brand that mattered. Today, it’s yours. So how’s that going? If you are going to secure your long-term future in this new economy, either with an employer or with clients, you have to establish your own personal brand. One book calls this new concept “Me, Inc.” Whether it’s your resume or your LinkedIn profile, you need to be clear on what your brand is. Why? Because as my friend David Hutchens of Iconoclast Communications writes, “In a marketplace full of comparable skills, individual brand (“the brand of me”) is one of the last areas of differentiation.”
How do you define your own brand? Get to know the real you. The best and most marketable brands are those that are true to your authentic self. No one else is quite like you. No one else has the combination of life experiences and job skills that you do. No one else has your personality and skill combination. So get in touch with that real you, and then trust that others will be attracted to that particular brand that is “you.” If you are presenting something that is not the real you, people will notice. They will perceive something missing, something unspoken or something more that you could be. So listen to your soul, ask others to help you see the unseen, and present a brand to the world that only you can sell. Ask yourself the question Parker J. Palmer asks in a book that was groundbreaking for me, Let Your Life Speak: “Is the life that I am living [the brand that I am presenting] the life that wants to live in me?” As you become more and more fully alive and true to your self, your winning and unique brand will emerge.
In my experience in understanding Me, Inc., there have been two challenges. The first is the process of finding my unique voice and my distinct brand that is authentic to me. The second, and more difficult challenge, is to trust that voice, sell that brand and trust that others will be drawn to it. We may think, “What do I have to say that someone else can’t say better?” “Sally is a better teacher than me.” “If people know the real me, they won’t like me.” Yet, I’ve found that every time that I speak, write or act with authenticity, it is a more powerful word, and people connect with what I am saying as an embodied truth of my life that they can embody too. How do you get over this fear? Just start doing, writing, acting, teaching, creating, drawing or whatever it is that you have to give to the world. You will gain trust as you do, and you also will further refine your brand closer to your authentic self and in light of the “world’s deep need,” to quote Frederick Buechner on vocation.
Once you know your brand, and you want to begin promoting it to the world that awaits it, here are a few suggestions:
1. Develop your own avatar or logo that represents you or your business. Then speak in your own voice with a recognizable opinion. I often am startled by how many people tell me that they think that writing my opinion on a blog or Twitter is a courageous act. I was not aware of it — I assume a certain amount of trust among friends to be able to share and write openly. But I also am aware that some people don’t care for what I write, and perhaps my employers may be impacted by it. That’s the risk. But if you have no opinion that is “you,” don’t be surprised if no one listens. Leadership has a voice, and it’s often a voice on the edge that makes you distinct. Be sensitive, but speak with consistent viewpoints and values that become your identified brand.
2. Create your own business and file for legal status. Everyone should own their own business. Even if you have a full-time employer, I encourage you to cultivate some of your own projects that continue to build your brand and equip you for freelance work if you do lose that full-time job. If you are under 40, there is a very good chance you may have to freelance or be an entrepreneur at several points in your career. Start now, and there are tax incentives for doing it too.
3. When you apply for a full-time job, present your brand and not just your experiences. If it’s helpful, refer them to your online presence on LinkedIn or a blog that you write on a subject of your expertise. Provide the hiring manager with written samples of your work, or a personal statement about your brand.
4. Employ social media tools to build your brand. Create a LinkedIn profile that is very specific to the brand that you are trying to sell. For example, I have worked for luxury hotels in the past. However, I do not mention any of this work on my LinkedIn profile because it is a distraction from the brand I am trying to sell as a public affairs expert. Make your Facebook page a catalyst for your brand. I try to refrain from posting personal or silly status messages, and instead I opt for posting articles on subjects that are connected to my brand. On Facebook, I am the person my friends turn to for political articles and policy updates. This advances my brand, even though in a casual format. I am a strong advocate of using Twitter to promote your brand as it allows those most interested in you and what you have to say to follow you. Design your Twitter profile page to communicate the values of your brand, and then stick with only topics related to your brand when you tweet. Over time, you will develop a Twitter personality, and you will be in conversation with those who most appreciate you and can advance you to new opportunities.
5. Reject job offers that do not complement your brand. If you can’t be “you,” you will not survive. You will be fired, you will resign, or you will be miserable. Every time that I did not succeed in a job or found myself unhappy in a situation, it was because it was not true to my most authentic self. Others notice, and God, the universe and others will make sure that you receive the communication. In a tight job market, it’s tempting to take what you can get. Don’t. Trust that opportunity will find its way to meet preparation and passion.
So who is the real you? If it’s not clear, others will define you. So listen to your soul, pray for direction, ask others for feedback, and then die to the temptation of self-preservation so that you can truly be alive and all you are supposed to be.