For the first 12 weeks of the new year, I’m highlighting what I’ve been calling The Syllabus: a dozen books that have positively improved my life and my career. I often recommend them to clients and colleagues who tell me they’re ready to make giant leaps in both their professional status and their personal fulfillment.
In a previous blog post, I dumped on the concept of a personal brand. Or, at least, on a twisted version of the practice that I’ve seen far too often in technology circles. I might have become a little bit jaded about the phrase. That happened after a few years of helping clients work through some challenging issues related to how they’re seen in the world.
Twenty years ago, nobody would have guessed how gauzy and glossy our self-images would have become. We didn’t yet realize what smartphones and social media would do to our culture. At that point in history, we still focused on writing the perfect cover letter to land interviews for excellent jobs. We didn’t have to contend with “online footprints” to go along with background searches.
This 1999 book still teaches me about the importance of a personal brand in 2020 and beyond.
But in 1999, an enduring book about building a personal brand showed up on shelves. Tom Peters, having already written some groundbreaking books on the future of business, dropped a collection of manifestos under the “Reinventing Work” banner.
Since then, The Brand You 50 has been required reading for most folks in my professional life. (I usually give copies to new managers on my teams, and even to some of my clients.) Unlike some other books of its era, overshadowed by rapid technological and cultural shifts, this work still speaks to the importance of doing the work and taking credit for it.
The style of the book foreshadows the kind of writing we’d get used to online on message boards and blogs. One of my managers at the time thought it was a little bonkers because it didn’t feel coherent. That’s one of the book’s strengths. You can flip to any page in this book at any time in your life and find some powerful inspiration.
If you forced me to drill down to five of my favorite takeaways, I’d pick:
Evaluate your personal brand every year.
You know what you’re capable of, and you know what you aspire to accomplish in your career. Does your boss? Do your customers?
We feel frustrated when our daily routines don’t align with our ambitions. Peters challenges us to audit the things that people think we do well, then to add those big goals to the list.
In an intense exercise, Peters asks us to write the statement: “I am known for [2-4 things]. By this time next year, I intend to ALSO be known for [1-2 things].”
That simple exercise validates the ritual of assessing how other people see you. Knowing that, you can measure whether you’re moving in the direction of your stated goals.
Embrace project life.
When this book first came out, I could draw a line to it directly from “The Effective Executive.” Unlike Drucker’s vision of a “company man,” Peters recognized the first waves of what we’d later call portfolio careers.
Resumes can constrain us. They don’t tell the whole story of our ambitions, our contributions, or our potential.
Projects can liberate us. When a project has a distinct timeline, it gives us the freedom to explore new ideas and to build crucial skills. When experiments go well, they inform your current and future projects. If they don’t succeed, you can explain what you learned and how you pivoted to something new.
This is something that musicians, writers, and filmmakers have done very well for decades. Stephen King, Garth Brooks, and J.K. Rowling all took some heat for their pseudonymous side projects, but none of them wrecked their careers.
In recent years, this concept crept from the fringe of freelancer culture into the mainstream, mainly via startup stories. It’s okay to pivot, and Peters was one of the first accepted business voices I heard emphasize that fact.
Growth is safety.
We can no longer expect to cozy up inside the same company, or in the same job, or even in the same city for decades. Private equity’s eating our world, while technology’s trying to disrupt it. If brands like Borders, Toys R Us, and even Sears can wither and disappear, there’s no guarantee your employer won’t vaporize.
If you’re a professional who’s content working for someone else, a strong personal brand means you’re more easily able to jump ship if things go south. You’re more likely to get recruited to a competitor long before trouble surfaces. You’re also more easily able to focus attention on your achievements instead of getting dragged down by a past employer’s failings.
If you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur, growing your practice to include work from multiple clients offers the most vital path to safety. When you’re working for ten clients and three of them bail or fail, you’re still okay. Even if you lost 90% of your clients, one sustaining project could be enough to pay your bills or to generate new referrals. You don't have to chase growth at all costs, just the diversity you need to endure unexpected career turbulence.
We’re all designers now.
Peters predicted correctly that experience—every physical and emotional element of an interaction or a transaction—would become as integral to business as the goods and services we ship. For a little while, Silicon Valley traded on phrases like “fake it until you make it” and “run fast and break things.” The pendulum's swinging back to favor expertise, polish, and style.
In general, it’s desirable to get a minimum viable product out the door to prove your concept and to validate your market. However, to compete in the 2020s, you’ll have to design an experience that rewards your customers for spending time and attention with you. Under today’s rules, a “less effective” solution with a stronger customer experience will almost always outperform a cheaper, more direct alternative.
The experience starts from the very first introduction a prospect has with you and your brand. Whether that’s your personal brand or the brand of the company you’re working for, you’ll need a “calling card” that sets you apart from your competition. (I still have the exclamation point baseball cap Peters gave out to early adopters of his Reinventing Work series—his calling card.)
Learn how to manage talent, especially when it isn’t yours.
Although this book’s ostensibly about building your personal brand, Peters also urges readers to think differently about building networks of talented collaborators. If you’re working on the front lines of an organization, which of your peers excels at their current task? Who’s got the chops to grow into a strong individual contributor, a trainer, or a leader?
Whether you’re working inside a company or building your freelance career, you’ll never be able to accomplish all of your goals without extra help. Building a roster of quality talent makes you even more valuable to employers or clients. You can show that their success isn’t tied directly to your gain. You'll also enjoy the benefits that come from cultivating the strongest talent in your community.