Do Employees Need a Professional “Brand”?

When I was growing up, the worst insult my parents could give a person was to say he or she was “affected,” or putting on an act, trying to be someone he or she wasn’t. I took that to heart, and still get self-conscious if I notice myself not acting naturally.

With all the talk in recent years about personal and professional “branding,” I wonder about affectation, and whether these branding attempts are nothing but contrivances. If you act, and express yourself, as you truly are, do you need a personal brand? If you’re acting sincerely, then don’t your words and actions organically brand you, with no further “branding” effort required?

The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, published a piece last week on how impressed he was with musician Chance the Rapper’s sincere performance on a late night show, in which he questioned his parenting abilities, and how good a friend he was. It didn’t appear that he was consciously creating an image, but, rather, expressing himself sincerely, and then just seeing what would happen.

That approach is in opposition to our social media-driven culture in which some people—many, even—consciously think about how they will be perceived by others. They carefully curate the images they post to their Facebook and Instagram accounts, and create professional Websites with professionally created personal logos. They think about and brand themselves with an amount of attention that in the old days would have been reserved for commodities like potato chips and clothing lines.

When you give professional development guidance to your employees, do you recommend thinking about their professional branding, or do you encourage them to simply focus on doing the best job they can? I would advocate leaving branding out of the conversation. Branding should be reserved for the products and services you are selling, not the people you are developing.

If you’re worrying about branding, then you’re not secure that the words you’re speaking and the actions you’re taking are enough to show people who you are. Or you want to be thought of as something different than your words and actions have proven you to be.

In the social media “branding” world, images and posts are said to be “on brand” or “off brand.” That supposes everything you say and do will fit into the same mold. The problem is the world is fluid and complex, and intelligent people are multidimensional. You may be a hard-nosed businessperson who is known at the company for driving salespeople hard, and have a social media presence with links to books and lectures touting hardline approaches such as forced ranking, but on those same pages, you could share your love of watercolor painting and volunteering at the local animal shelter, complete with photos of puppies and kittens. Should the watercolor painting and puppies and kittens be kept off the Websites where you are “branding” yourself because those images are “off- brand?”

Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has a quote I’ve always loved about the perils of consistency: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”

Be suspicious of the person—manager or employee—who never changes his or her mind, and never surprises you. Sometimes being “off brand” is actually being “on brand”—if the brand is sincerity and the kind of person your customers will want to do business with.

Do you discuss branding in your professional development courses? How do you encourage employees to be sincere in their perspectives, and to use those sincere perspectives to help you create better products and services, and grow your business?