As someone who has spent most of her career in Marketing, I often give presentations on branding and reputation management. Sometimes this is in the context of company brands and sometimes personal brands. My audiences range from sophisticated business executives and astute social media users to social media novices. Since I work cross functionally, I tailor my presentations to the audience at hand and am either seen as a provider of useful information or a foreteller of a future they are not quite ready for.
While I am a big believer in the power of brands, and I think the Internet has created a need for personal brand management, somewhere along the line I began to notice something that concerned me. While company brands or sub-brands should provide a straightforward message and be very easy to identify by key attributes, color, sound, appearance, or emotional context, applying this to one’s personal brand can be very limiting. When I think Volvo, safety come to mind, with Disney it is family fun and with Apple it is design excellence. But human beings are very complex and adaptive. Shouldn’t my personal brand be a bit more flexible?
Before social media and the Internet knowledge of our skills, abilities, hobbies and accomplishments was restricted to those we knew or chose to reveal ourselves to. We might be known in some social circles for academic achievement, others for physical prowess or even business savvy. In each circle, we interacted with different people, so each group was privy to that aspect of ourselves that we chose to share. These silos allowed for a certain amount of reinvention. One’s book club associates might not know of one’s talent as a musician. One’s work colleagues might not know about one’s extensive collection of Star Trek memorabilia. Facebook, LinkedIn and internal knowledge management platforms changed this paradigm. In some ways, this openness was very freeing. But it may also have had some unintended consequences. In a world where transparency is the norm, does our desire to fit in or to be easily classified restrict our choices?
Most experts on personal branding tell us that each of us needs to stand for something. We need to establish our identity online, be consistent and promote that view of ourselves. My concern is that in some cases social media has forced us to identify ourselves in ways that are not representative of who we really are. For many, this is not a concern. But, for me, this is an issue. Am I a marketer, an organizational psychologist, an educator or a researcher? The answer is yes. I am all of those things. Do I need to choose only one domain to work in? LinkedIn thinks I do. While I can write what I want in my headline, my LinkedIn profile allows me only one industry descriptor. Mine says Marketing and Advertising. It not a false description, just an incomplete one. And, I do not like the fact that I have to make this choice.
This fall I will be teaching a graduate seminar in leadership and development at Montclair State University. Although there are many theories of leadership, most point out that how we lead depends on factors such as the context, our followers and the task at hand. The early theories that claimed leaders were born with certain immutable traits and always behaved as leaders have fallen into disfavor. Leadership behavior is simply much more complicated than this. While individuals may be great leaders in one set or circumstances, they may fail in others and learn new sets of behaviors over time. The lesson is that people are not unidimensional and that they change.
So, let us not take a medium as empowering as social media and let it force us into simple buckets. And just because things live on in social media forever, let us not restrict our ability to change or reinvent ourselves. People are multidimensional and constantly shifting and our personal brands need to reflect this reality.
LinkedIn, are you listening?