HOW PERSONAL BRANDING HELPED ME DIG MYSELF OUT OF A CAREER MESS
I never used to care about personal branding until I received a wake-up call. It was the summer of 2011, and I was a senior consultant at a global consultancy firm (Based in Sydney, Australia). I was technically adept; I could audit Active Directories, Linux servers or Mainframe systems in my sleep. I had multiple IT certifications and supported audits across strategic clients. Feeling upbeat, I joined my manager to discuss my end of year performance. After a bit of small talk, my manager cut straight to the chase: “You’re a very skilled IT auditor, Phil. Your value to your audit teams is unquestionable. If you start working on leadership and business development skills, I am sure you will be a manager in 18 months.” I stared at my manager with blazing intensity. Yes, I had heard right. It was 18 months, not the following month (as I thought). It wasn’t even six months. I had already been in that role for three years. Most of my peers had risen to manager roles in just two years.
I learnt the hard way that my strategy — toiling in obscurity and hoping my manager would discern my ambition for promotion — was deeply flawed, especially in Australia. My personal brand was weak at best. Beyond my employer, no one else knew or cared about my technical competencies. I boasted about holding multiple certifications, but so did hundreds of thousands of professionals. I did not possess any extremely valuable skillsets that differentiated me from the masses. In short, I had no leverage: my employer could replace me with other techies in less than a week. Further compounding my anguish, I had only been in Australia for three years — my networks were constrained. That episode tipped me over the edge and soon after, I resigned from my job.
Everything changed in 2014 when I decided to take my career into my own hands. In today’s ultracompetitive marketplace, if you’re just somebody, you’re a nobody. I needed a way to accelerate my career and reach the top. The middle ranks were too crowded.
I realized I had a choice — continue down the path of being known as a cybersecurity specialist and be stuck in middle management or technical roles for the rest of my career or do something different. I set a goal — To sharpen my business writing skills and simplify complex cyber and technology risk matters for senior business executives. That renewed mindset ignited a whirlwind run of success. By blending my passion with my expertise and focusing on my personal brand, my career skyrocketed.
What Is Personal Branding?
Your personal brand is the impression that others have of you — it’s your reputation — the good or the bad things you are known for. According to The Economist, “Brands are the most valuable assets many companies possess…often worth much more than property and machinery.”
Think about what comes to mind when you meet someone associated with McKinsey. I think of high-intellect or someone who oozes exuberant confidence and possesses game-changing insights. What about Rolex? I quickly think of a legacy of exceptional excellence, exclusivity, and prestige.
Peers, recruiters, prospective clients, and employers have strong views about the value you bring to the table and what you stand for. Recruiters use these perceptions to throw professionals into ridiculous pay brackets just a few minutes into their first meeting. So, whether you like it or not, you have a personal brand.
Being highly intentional about your personal brand unleashes incalculable benefits, including:
- Income: The strength of your personal brand is correlated to your value. A weak brand gives you zero leverage. Employers dictate your pay grade and normally place you at the bottom end of whatever they are willing to pay. But when you are a recognized thought leader — employers and clients ask you what you want. When you ignore your personal brand, you leave a lot of money on the table.
- Career Insurance: A strong personal brand will provide career insurance. Recruiters and executive search agents will constantly knock at your door. Your thought leadership becomes your business card, a powerful magnet to attract prospects. Clients will compete for your expertise.
- Career Advancement: Deliberately cultivating your brand opens new career opportunities and sets you apart from the crowd. According to a recent study, 85% of US-based recruiters and HR professionals say that an employee’s online reputation influences their hiring decisions to some extent. Nearly half say that a strong online reputation influences their decisions to a great extent.
Despite the indisputable power of personal branding, only a tiny fraction of technical professionals get this right. In the following sections, I dive deep into three powerful strategies you can use to accelerate your personal branding journey. I back these strategies because these are what I built my career on.
THREE PROVEN STRATEGIES TO CREATE A KILLER PERSONAL BRAND.
1. Embrace Your Narrative
People engage, hire, and give consulting gigs to people they know, like and trust. Authenticity is the greatest weapon to disarm people and build deep connections. By trying to be a derivative of someone else, you lose your narrative and sense of identity. Faking it is not sustainable; it drains energy and puts off people. Human beings are wired to discern disingenuous acts. The image of “perfection” comes off as trying too hard, uninspiring, and phony.
You need to find the right balance between churning out highly valuable insights about your chosen technical niche and getting your connections to know you through lived experiences.
2. Carve A Niche Within A Niche
Effectiveness requires extreme focus. To stand out, you must be an expert on something very important to your employer or clients. This means finding a niche, then further zoning into a niche within a niche. To stand out from the crowd and accelerate yourself to the top, you must pursue skillsets that are unique, strategically important, and hard to master. In short, choose to do the hard things, not follow the grain. If everyone else is doing it, then it’s probably not highly valuable.
The greatest personal brands do one thing with mastery. But how do you decide what your niche should be? You need to find something that sets your heart on fire (your passion), which clients are willing to pay for (something valuable).
Finding your passion is an iterative process that involves several missteps. It is never straightforward; it takes time and sometimes requires sticking with the mundane. Trying a few things early on helps you deselect areas you should not be in at all.
3. Create An Ambitious Yet Realistic Roadmap.
Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved in life without a clear roadmap. Personal branding is no different. To succeed, you must envision the end goal and ruthlessly prioritize high-impact and compounding activities that accelerate that journey. Without a strong sense of purpose and direction, your attention will be easily captured by the seemingly urgent and the unessential. You will spend hours aimlessly scrolling through other people’s social media pages, scrutinizing their posts while overlooking your own development needs.
Real transformation comes from execution. The personal branding journey is full of obstacles — LinkedIn posts that no one likes, battling with writer’s block, fighting internet trolls, to name a few. Resist the urge to obsess about the end game; execute the strategy as a commitment to yourself, a debt of honour. A personal brand is a result of actions you consistently repeat.
When you develop your roadmap, it’s important to prioritize quick wins — simple but essential activities you can do to get started and set the flywheel in motion. Quick wins don’t necessarily mean hurryingly drafting an article and posting it on LinkedIn. It simply means getting down to work on something important, not worrying too much about results.
Developing a valuable personal brand takes time, effort, and tremendous sacrifice. But it must be done because the upside is incalculable. It’s foolhardy to expect an even terrain towards your goals unless you set the bar so low that the goals themselves are inconsequential.
Phil is an experienced head of cybersecurity, strategic advisor, author, and public speaker. He is the Amazon best selling author of The Five Anchors of Cyber Leadership, a practical cyber strategy book for senior business leaders. 2017 winner of ISACA International’s Michael Cangemi Best Book/Article Award, for major contributions in the field of IS Audit, control and security.