How to build your personal brand

All hat and no cattle

In Texas there is a great expression “All hat and no cattle“, referring to someone who pretends to be more than he is worth through exaggerated outward signs of wealth and prosperity.  Getting the balance right when building your own personal brand is something that will increasingly pay dividends over and over again.  Yet most people don’t pay any attention to this aspect of their professional lives.

Hat and cattle

Last week I had the interesting experience of attending a free seminar for business owners and entrepreneurs.  The seminar promised wealth and a “life changing experience”.   I’m not really sure why I went, perhaps curiosity got the better of my judgement.  Although I rapidly came to the conclusion that this particular “wealth coaching” was not for me; the experience was nevertheless useful because it highlighted several misperceptions about a personal brand that I think are important to share.

The mainly young audience at this seminar was encouraged to “dress up” to impress and many did. There was a display from which you could buy really expensive “power ties”. You could get your photograph taken next to a so called “celebrity figure” (who I had never heard of before). Name dropping successful billionaires and American movie celebrities was the order of the day. Many in the audience seemed unable to withhold their unsupressed desire to become rich quickly.  Flying first class, homes on the ocean, a jet-setter lifestyle, owning multiple businesses and brands across the planet.  All you need to do is play the part, the rest comes easily.  (Not).

I found the whole experience rather shallow and left early.  Wealth does not come because you start wearing a suit.   But I believe that your personal brand does matter.  Here’s why:

Personal brand

Personal branding is intentionally creating a positive image (brand) from your success, capabilities and track record in order to increase your value in the market. It is not the same as your personality, it is your considered outward image.  It often takes the form of clothing and physical appearance; and is amplified through your personal profile in digital media such as your Linked-In profile.  But it can also extend to courtesies you extend to others, good etiquette and a professional approach to everything you do.

For some, personal promotion is equated to being brash and shallow, to others it is an essential business skill.  The difference lies in whether or not you do it authentically and “have any cattle to show off” (to continue using the analogy).

Personal branding can be very important. The lack of attention to your personal brand is often interpreted as a lack of your commitment to excellence and pride in what you do.

There is no doubt in my mind that personal branding can be a valuable strategy to advancing your own career.

A personal brand can take a long time to nurture and develop. It can easily be destroyed in an instant, for example through being tagged in Facebook in embarrassing situations, or a rant on social media. It can also inadvertently be destroyed through inappropriate dress code, bad language or other untoward behaviour in a business setting.  But the biggest achilles heel of people who are “all hat” is when others detect that they are not being authentic, that it is a facade and a cover up for inexperience or inadequacies.

Most people are blissfully unaware of their professional brand and it shows in their dress code, online presence, or absence thereof.

Others however are very concerned by their brand; but who have nothing of substance to support the impression they are trying to create. They are all hat and no cattle. Many inexperienced entrepreneurs fall into this trap. They over dress for the situation to signal their success. This success is one dimensional, aspirational, and transparent. In reality they are simply raising warning signals that any seasoned business person will instantly see through.

There is nothing wrong with making an effort to be well presented, as long as you successfully walk the fine line between dignity and vanity.  When it is about yourself it is vanity, when it is showing respect for others it is dignity.

If your personal brand is not developed with authenticity as a core value then you are probably going to do more harm than it is worth.

However if you actually have a lot to offer (you do!)  and you don’t intentionally develop your personal brand then you also short change yourself.

If you think your brand is perceived as fake you might only need a few small changes. For example:

  • Instead of trying to brand by superficial “association” and name dropping, get a credible person with whom you have an actual relationship to provide you with a real testimonial.
  • Instead of the suit that makes you aloof and unaproachable, dress with one motive only, to show respect for the situation and others;  never for “status”.

Your online brand

Ensure that every interaction you have using digital media is authentic and professional. Many (if not most) employers now look at your Facebook and Linked-In profile before making a decision to recruit. Many (if not all) business partners will do their homework on you using online search before committing to a significant business deal with you.

The personal brand of professionals can be strongly enhanced by an online resume, testimonials, a carefully managed Linked-In (and Facebook) profile and a personal blog. Such assets are likely to include a resume, links to a carefully managed LinkedIn profile and a personal blog, evidence of articles which disseminate original ideas on industry blogs and evidence of having an online following.Wikipedia

Here are a few suggestions for improving your own personal brand:

  1. Understand that you are a brand, whether you are an entrepreneur or employed full time. There is nothing wrong with promoting yourself assertively, provided you remain authentic. To be authentic you need to understand and be able to articulate your core values.
  2. Pay attention to appropriate dress code; especially in business situations. Unless your customers also dress in suits and power ties (such as in the financial and banking sectors), drop the facade of overdressing; it impresses no-one and can be a barrier to a meaningful relationship.  Dress appropriately and with respect.   If you are visiting a chemical factory, wear all the safety gear.  Sometimes you will need to dress down from your normal to show connection and respect.  Think of Mandela wearing the rugby jersey at the World Cup final.  He did not need a suit and tie in that situation.
  3. Pay careful attention to your digital presence online – make sure every post or interaction is authentic and represents your belief system. Consider creating your own platform online through which you craft and develop your brand. Once you have an online presence, show up; not as a grey avatar but as the authentic you.  Do an audit of your online assets and ensure that everything reinforces your brand.
  4. Your reputation is your most significant professional asset. Here prevention is better than cure. But if you have made mistakes in the past, be candid and acknowledge them. Trying to hide something is never successful and will break down trust.
  5. Be intentional about developing and articulating your own personal value proposition:  ” I help” [insert who you target] ” do/achieve/with ” [insert what you do] ” so that they ” [describe the transformation].
  6. Surround yourself with successful people, but be careful that there is some substance in the association or you will be considered a “name dropper” and a fake.
  7. Continue to work on your brand – this is not a once-off process. If you are in a leadership role and are looking to increase your impact, consider getting professional help on how to develop and maintain your brand.

Your personal brand can be one of the most important investments you make in your professional life; it can become more important than your CV.

But be careful to not be branded as having “all hat and no cattle”.

Be authentic, anything less will damage you more than you will realise (and ever be told).