A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I got into a debate over personal branding. We argued whether the notion of a “personal brand” seems like anything a true professional should need or want. For many folks, this phrase smacks of entitlement, suggesting that we’re looking to get famous instead of achieving mastery. It even suggests we can grow careers by means other than mastering our respective crafts.
Until pretty recently, I might have advised clients that personal branding’s not for everyone. It’s certainly helpful when you’re an author, a musician, or a filmmaker. But does personal branding make sense when you’re working as a developer, or in any kind of back office?
A few years ago, I started compiling stories about personal branding from technology professionals who were positioning themselves as “rockstar programmers.”
Then: “Don’t rock the boat.” Now: “Become the rock star of your specialty.”
Early in my career, a few of my bosses weren’t keen on individuals having much of a reputation beyond their office walls. That approach might have worked in industries where you could cozy into a job for four decades, then retire. However, as we’ve all been rocketing into portfolio lives, I’ve seen so much of the language and strategy of entertainment branding creep into our discourse around hiring (and firing).
After sitting on both sides of the hiring table, I grew curious about whether personal branding might negatively influence folks like musicians or artists. If we’re so busy directing our most creative people toward careers in startups, would we create a vacuum in culture and fine arts? If we’re pulling all-nighters writing code, who’s writing music?
It turns out that my initial premise was backward.
Not only has our search for “rockstar talent” failed to impact the flow of new creative work, but the best (and worst) tendencies of creative careers have also fully invaded our workspaces. For instance:
- Managers worry about offending hard-to-recruit coders (or other brilliant jerks), so they tolerate the worst possible “rockstar behavior” in the workplace.
- Many companies bias their hiring decisions based on “culture fit” instead of assessing whether a candidate can do the work better than their peers.
- Venture capital firms operate as record labels did nearly forty years ago. Sign a bunch of talent, knowing 75% of them will fail to meet too-lofty goals—then fail to support that talent when “hockey stick results” don’t materialize.
It’s that kind of behavior that winds me up the most. I wrote about it in my early books, when I was working primarily with musicians. Lately, I see the same behavior among startups and even mature technology companies, as if nobody learned anything from the massive upheaval in the recording industry.
A few good lessons about personal branding from the fracturing entertainment industry
On the other hand, there’s much good in the “entertainment-ization” of jobs. For instance:
- Audiences—our customers—have more direct input than ever over what ideas gain traction and which sink to the bottom. We’re not as likely as we once were to tolerate mediocre customer service, shoddy design, or poor intentions from the companies we patronize.
- Talent has rediscovered collaboration—not just when it comes to the “work” but on issues like fair pay and equitable treatment.
- Transparency—especially in the amount of credit shared on a collaboration—can spotlight natural talent. It’s no longer enough to make your boss or your company look good. You’ve got to highlight your contributions to a project’s success and the education you gained from failure.
But here’s the thing about personal branding, and why I think it frustrates my friend (and so many other people). It can seem like you’re expending a whole lot of energy on tasks that aren’t at the core of the work you want to do.
The paradox of hiring for brand over talent
That’s not fair, but it’s what I see in my backyard. Companies hire developers, designers, and other creative professionals based on signals that have little to do with the work they perform, such as:
- How many conference talks they’ve given in the past year,
- Whether they can solve a whiteboard solution without assistance from research materials, or
- How likely they are to fit the existing culture of an organization.
This year, I’m spending a significant amount of my research time focusing on what “personal branding” means in 2020 and beyond. It doesn’t have to be grueling or anxiety-inducing. It doesn’t have to detract from the great work you’re bringing into the world. It only has to highlight the value you add to the people you work with, regardless of your industry.
I still think “Brands are the New Bands.” Seizing control of your platform to tell your own story will become the defining element for successful professionals over the next decade.