Unsolicited Advice for the Class of ’17
A version of this article originally appeared in AdWeek.
Dear Class of 2017: Congratulations on your hard-earned diploma. Now, I have some bad news for you. Your education has neglected to teach you about the single most important skill set for tackling the working world.
I’m talking about branding, which is no longer for the likes of just Disney and Coca-Cola, Apple and Beyoncé. Anyone looking to carve out a promising career, and “future-proof” themselves in volatile workforce, will need to focus on treating his or her personal reputation and professional offering as a distinct personal brand.
Until recently, the notion of personal branding was reserved almost exclusively for Hollywood stars and Washington politicians. But today’s expectations and realities surrounding self-promotion have changed. Microsoft’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of LinkedIn last year underscored that the confluence of self-publishing, social networking and professional development is too big to be ignored. Recent college grads take note: The hunt for employment is no longer so much about finding “the right job” as it is about differentiating, communicating and extending your brand.
Where does someone new to the workforce—or wishing to reimagine a professional restart for him or herself—begin? Nearly all existing advice on personal branding boils down to posting regularly on social networks, blogging, establishing “thought leadership” and other hackneyed and purely tactical prescriptions. Great and enduring brands, however, start with some serious soul-searching. This discovery phase involves pinpointing one’s strengths, beliefs, values and key market differentiators. Introspect carefully. Ask ruthlessly honest interview questions of friends, family and colleagues to help you concretely formulate your personal brand identity.
The next step is to create a kind of narrative framework that brings your unique brand elements together. (It seems like only yesterday that corporate America discovered the power of storytelling. Yes, people respond well to narratives with beginnings, middles and endings! Yes, consumers identify with heroes on journeys who overcome obstacles! Who knew?)
When a prospective employer asks some variation on “So tell me a little something about yourself?” you need to be able to answer in a compelling, concise and authentic way. In the world of corporate branding, we call this your brand promise. What is that integral thing for which you stand, and how does that make you, 2017 graduate, stand out from the pack?
Finally, develop a system for visually expressing your personal brand identity via a distinct look and feel. What impression do you hope to make? What is your personal style? (As Martin Amis reminded us in his essay on Lolita, “style is morality.”) Steve Jobs’ hallmark anti-style was not only instantly recognizable, but visually echoed his beliefs about the power of functional elegance and simplicity. If Mark Zuckerberg’s jeans and T-shirt recycling of that signature look falls flat, it is because the Facebook CEO doesn’t demonstrate values that live in harmony with the wardrobe’s statement.
Focusing on building and strengthening identity beyond singular achievements, and aligning one’s future plans with those stated goals, is crucial to steering and growing one’s personal brand. A well-crafted and maintained public image enabled Angelina Jolie to transition from Hollywood wild child to acclaimed director and celebrated humanitarian. Demonstrating similar savvy is Emma Watson, who transcended the child-star burnout tradition by establishing a name for herself beyond Harry Potter, allowing her to deftly step into her role of UN global ambassador for women’s rights.
(A striking counterexample might be the squandered goodwill of comedy superstars like Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy, who rehash tired concepts lacking any of the daring or originality of their earlier work.)
Hollywood culture and image maintenance might seem disconnected from the needs of the average worker bee, but there are key parallels. With the exception of actors who find themselves on hit TV shows that last for years, even the most successful performers jostle from gig to gig. Today’s emerging professionals face a similar challenge.
A recent Pew Report estimates that the average worker beginning his or her career now will switch positions roughly once every four years. Given that our time in the workforce is only expected to lengthen, that means an average person entering today’s workforce will have a dozen or more jobs over his or her lifetime. Choosing to work for companies that align with one’s own stated mission is a must, but strong personal brands need to exist beyond and outside the imprimatur of any single employer. More workers are taking a step further, by embracing freelance careers or side gigs that make personal branding all the more vital. Join the Party™ for the gig economy, and you’ll want to consider your own brand very carefully.
Defining one’s professional identity by current position is not a viable long-term strategy, given that one’s position is likely to change in the (relative) near term.
Class of 2017: Branding is no longer solely the purview of movie stars and sneakers, cars and toothpaste. Like it or not, personal branding is a new professional necessity. Identifying and magnifying one’s personal brand is a skill set that requires seriousness, attention and mastery if one hopes to have the opportunities to do one’s best work.