Going for a career change after a long absence from the job market?
You may have noticed that the essential requirements have changed somewhat.
These days, a LinkedIn profile is crucial; Skype is replacing face-to-face early stage interviews and sites like Glassdoor give potential employees the inside track on a company’s culture before they even click apply. Some companies even use application tracking systems — computer software systems that scan CVs and whittle out the ones that don’t meet the job requirements.
The way we present ourselves to potential employers has changed too. A hard-bound copy of your CV, a new pair of tights and the ability to rattle off something about being a ‘team player’ will no longer give you the competitive edge.
These days, you have to think of yourself as a ‘brand’, and sell yourself accordingly. Personal branding is the recruitment buzzword of the moment, and personal branding gurus (yes, there is such a thing) say it’s about finding your “emotional appeal” (‘hard-working’, ‘lateral-thinking’, ‘problem-solving’) before encapsulating it all in a pithy little brand statement.
Oprah is a one-woman brand
Forget rambling prefabricated sentences like: “I have a proven ability to find solutions to complex problems by coupling hard work with out-of-the-box thinking.”
Instead, borrow from the ‘Just Do It’ school of copywriting, say the experts. At the very least, your CV will appeal to the shorter attention spans of modern internet users.
Personal branding is about avoiding cover letter boilerplate and injecting a little bit of what makes you you onto the page.
Cite your passions, your motivations, even your idiosyncrasies, but for the love of God, don’t describe yourself as a “citizen of the world”, a “zeitgeist surfer” or a “culture vulture”.
It’s a strategy that has as many advocates as it has critics. The latter say the word branding is reductive, and suggests a corporate façade and a dehumanised approach. They can’t reconcile with the idea of an ordinary worker becoming an entity, especially in a world where one-man brands tend to be mononymous — Madonna, Oprah, Beyonce — and globally recognised.
Advocates, on the other hand, recognise that this is job-hunting for a new, social-media savvy generation.
It’s for people who care how many followers they have on Twitter and, consequently, pay attention to the way in which they portray themselves online.
But is personal branding the correct term for what is essentially managing your online reputation, defining what separates you from the competition and selling yourself at an interview?
Or is it all hype and no substance, like scribbling some motivational maxims on a whiteboard, plonking a beanbag in the corner and calling it a “breakout area”, or telling people you “curate” rather than “write” your blog?
PR expert Terry Prone of The Communications Clinic, agrees that, semantically speaking, the term is not quite fit for the job.
“It’s very American and very car-mechanics,” she quips. However, she is quick to add that the concept itself is an important one.
“Personal brands are made up of a number of inputs, and prospective employers analyse those inputs.”
What are these inputs?
Louise Nevin, a career and executive coach, says they can be summed up as ‘Who you are’ and ‘What you can offer’: “You need to be able to describe to employers and customers what you can offer them and where you can add significant value. Genuinely building trust in your brand is key.”
Louise also suggests asking yourself: “What do I have to contribute that is unique; what service do I have to offer and whom have I helped to date; if someone could only use one or two words to describe me, what would they be; what area, department or organisation am I best positioned to work with; why choose me?”
The term ‘personal branding’ was coined by Tom Peters, author of Brand You, back in the 90s. It’s only in recent years that the buzzword has begun to re-emerge.
Career consultant Andrée Harpur said she began to notice people using it again at the beginning of the recession. “So many people were seeking employment and several hundred were going for the same job,” she explains. “It was no longer good enough to say ‘I am a graduate from such and such a college’ as so many others were there too. You had to find something that made you different, unique and stand out from the crowd. The unique way that you presented yourself in order to stand out slowly became your personal brand.”
Despite its popularity, the very idea of personal branding still makes some people shudder.
Critics say it portrays an inflated sense of self-importance at best, an offshoot of the narcissism epidemic at worst. They think personal branding is best kept for those who have to get their autobiography out in time for the Christmas market.
“Lots of people think branding yourself is a bit of a step too far or that the individual who speaks to this agenda has a big ego,” agrees Orlaith Blaney, CEO of ad agency McCann Erickson. “[But] in this cluttered world, particularly in business, you need to stand for something. Asking yourself what your own brand strengths are and being consistent about what story you tell about yourself is important.
Orlaith Blaney of McCann Erickson
“[Everything]from your CV, to your LinkedIn profile, to how you behave on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook, really does let people know who you are and what is important to you.”
It’s a belief echoed by many experts in the field. While personal branding might suggest self-aggrandisment, it is much more about digital reputation management. And sometimes job-seekers make the most mindless blunders.
Rachel Tubridy of recruitment firm Brightwater Executive says she wants to see “professional looking profile photos” when she peruses a LinkedIn page, as opposed to “photos with your partner lying on the bed in the background”. And yes, she’s speaking from personal experience.
Louise agrees: “You might look great at a recent event or wedding but do avoid photos on LinkedIn that may portray anything other than your professional image and brand.”
If you’re not defining your digital reputation, someone else will, adds Terry. “It’s dangerously easy to have your personal brand involuntarily defined.
“In other words, if your social-media pictures and tweets define you as a party girl or one of the lads, in drinking and social life terms, then you (or your pals) may have stamped yourself with a brand that can be very difficult to shake off… and don’t talk to me about privacy settings.
“I have seen careers brought to a shuddering halt because the executive never asked themselves the basic ‘Do I really need to?’ question. Do I really need to respond to this? Do I really need to sniff this substance in a situation where camera phones are present? Do I really need to put this photograph up? Do I really need to spend this much time on social media?”
Orlaith has her own list of online no-nos for job-seekers. “If you have an incomplete LinkedIn profile with bad spelling and no photo, or a Facebook account with no activity or an absence of tweets from your Twitter account, then you’re better off not being there at all.
“You’re putting the message out that you’re just the ‘listening’ type of person and aren’t into ‘conversation’. I find the Twitter handle without a photo, four tweets, three followers and seven following kind of annoying.”
Fundamentally, your online and offline lives need to match. “The personal brand is not only provided at interview but has to spread across all media streams,” explains Andrée. “For this reason, people are investing more and more in defining exactly what their personal brand is.”
Adds Terry: “Authenticity requires consistency. In the past, you could claim on your CV that your hobbies were climbing, reading and theatre-going. Try that these days and if social media establishes that the claims are unrelated to your shared reality, your authenticity is shot.”
The importance of digital reputation management cannot be overstated. Companies often perform online vetting before they make an offer and many top-tier executives make sure to forensically assess their online reputations before they apply.
Some even hire companies to do it on their behalf. Simon Swale of OSP Brand Protection Services is the go-to guy. His company trawls multiple search engines, blogs, microblogs and other platforms before offering guidance on the “threat level” of those mentions.
“We can also provide the necessary technical and legal support to then address or correct any issues,” he adds.
Simon recommends that all job-hunters carry out an “online health check” to monitor their digital footprint before they submit an application. “Manually check Google and other search engines,” he advises, “sifting through the mentions and then assessing whether any of these are relevant or damaging to the application.”
Personal branding is, in many ways, similar to the marketing practice from which it is borrowed.
Job-seekers are promoting their unique selling points, minimising their shortcomings and erasing any misdemeanours with a neat click of the mouse. However, they’re fundamentally selling themselves — not a product. The danger of personal branding is that it can undermine the touchy-feeling and, dare we say, human side of the workplace.
Your brand tagline might describe you as a ‘go-getter’ with a ‘can-do attitude’, but there will come the day when you have to leave work early to collect a sick child from school. Likewise, you can remove any photos that show you in an unprofessional light from your Facebook account, but who’s to say you won’t end up snogging the intern in between downing Jägerbombs at the Christmas party?
Even the most carefully cultivated brands are fallible. More to the point, every brand has a life cycle — growth, maturity and decline.
So, if personal branding is your strategy for career success, don’t forget that reinvention is key.
See communicationsclinic.ie;louisenevin.com; andreeharpur.com; mccannerickson.ie; brightwater.ie
* Define what your brand is. Lack of clarity will confuse
* Become visible within your professional community — attend conferences and networking events and embrace social media
* Have a strong online presence — ensure you are consistent across all social-media platforms. Think before you post
* Become an expert — upskill and acquire as much knowledge as possible. Share your knowledge by presenting at events, commenting on articles/discussions and writing articles or blog posts.
* Don’t shamelessly sell yourself — personal branding is about bringing value. If you are self-promoting it’ll have a negative impact on your brand
* Don’t hide your personality — your personality is a key ingredient of your personal brand. Be genuine, be yourself. Don’t take life too seriously
* Don’t get off to a bad start — it’s important to make a good first impression, both online and in person.
— Paul Mullan is founder of Measurability, a leading career and out placement service provider; measurability.ie