Branding and Indispensability vs Reputation and Influence


A young steer being branded with an electric b...

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I was asked by Cyd Tetro to sit on a panel today at the Women Tech Council along with Sue Johnson. The topic is "personal branding, indispensability, and networking." I'm planning to be a little contrarian. First off, I agree with Doc that the idea of branding is dehumanizing. Fine for corporations, not necessary for people. We already have an identity and we have our humanity. Those are the things that we need to emphasize, not the idea of personal brand.

Second, as the saying goes, "the graveyards are full of indispensable people." The idea isn't to be indispensable, but rather to be influential. Individuals gain influence when they relate and lead. Everyone, at every level, can and should lead out. If you're stuck in an industrial-age org that believes that top management's role is to create a framework within which to cram everyone else at the expense of their individuality, then get out. We are not cogs in the machine. Good organizations provide platforms that individuals can leverage to do their best work.

On relating, I'm reminded of something I wrote recently in my starting a high tech business blog series: 10 years from now only the employees will care whether the company existed.

One of the critical observations I've made about iMall, almost 10 years after we sold it to Excite@Home is that only the employees care anymore. In 2009 the investors---those who made money and those who lost it---rarely think about iMall. The customers certainly don't give it a second thought. But the employees are a completely different matter. They made friendships there and gave important parts of their lives to making iMall a success. They learned things there that they use in their careers even now. There's even an active mailing list of former iMall employees.

One of the primary reasons for starting a business is that it's a lot more fun and exciting than getting a job. Part of the fun is that you get to pick the people you'll work with. You get to build a team and create a culture. If you succeed in creating a team that works everyone on that team will remember it as a highlight of their lives. I remember reading somewhere that when people are part of a successful team they spend the rest of their lives trying to recreate that experience. I think that's one of the reasons that most entreprenuers do it over and over again. They love the social side of starting a business.

Your influence is directly proportional to the people to relate to and your knowledge, insight, and passion. To have knowledge, you have to focus on developing your career. Your employer won't do it--you have to be responsible for it. Looking after yourself ensures that you're in a better position to lead now and in the future. Get plugged in and read. Follow interesting people on Twitter and read good blogs.

Passion is critical. If you're not passionate about what you're doing, do something else. Start your own company if you have to. Focus on making meaning (to borrow an idea from Guy Kawasaki) rather than money.

When people talk about personal branding, mostly what they're talking about is ensuring that outside identifiers are consistent. To the extent we're talking about that, I'm all for it. In particular, reputation depends on consistent identifiers. So here's a few tips:

  • Get a LinkedIn account and use it. LinkedIn is the resume of the 21st century
  • Get a Twitter account and follow interesting people
  • Choose account names carefully so that you can be found
  • Link things together so that people can find your Twitter account from your LinkedIn page, etc.
  • Pick a good avatar or picture and update it infrequently
  • Decide upfront how public you want to be and make some rules.
  • Don't assume that you can keep your "personal persona" on Facebook and your "professional persona" on LinkedIn separate; you can't. Everything about you is fair game and will be linked together.

Networking is about connection, but the real work comes in relating. Twitter's a good example. Connecting is easy, but the real benefit comes from following someone over time and understanding them. At Kynetx we hold open lunches every Friday as a way of networking both within the team and with external partners and friends. Those have a very personal dynamic to them. The Kynetx Impact conference (being held next week, by the way) is another way that our company networks and allows our partners and developers to network. The CTO breakfast that I started years ago is another example.

In the end, if you build a good reputation, trust will follow. And influence will follow trust. Doc Searls is a great example of the fact that you can be gracious and kind and still be influential. He's one of my heros. Follow his example: disagree without being disagreeable, challenge without getting personal, and lead without ego.