Ty Kiisel: For a leader, personal branding is not self promotion — it's much more important

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 2:00 p.m. MDT

As important as social media can be in projecting a positive personal brand, your brand is really your values and how your interactions with the world reflect those values. (Shutterstock) As important as social media can be in projecting a positive personal brand, your brand is really your values and how your interactions with the world reflect those values. (Shutterstock)

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon an article in Forbes that has been getting quite a bit of traction. Author Glen Llopis’ argument that personal branding is a leadership requirement and not a self-promotion campaign resonated with me.

The article reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with a friend who asked me how to “manage” his personal brand. I don’t know if “manage” is the best word. Because like everything else with a brand, it isn’t what you say you are, it’s your values and how you act on those values in public, in private, at the office and even at home — and this is difficult to actually “manage.” I don’t think you “manage” your brand, I think how you interact with the world “reflects” your brand.

Llopis suggested, “Personal branding, much like social media, is about making a full-time commitment to the journey of defining yourself as a leader and how this will shape the manner in which you will serve others.”

As I spoke with my friend, I immediately thought about how he could improve his professional image with social media via a blog and other opportunities to demonstrate leadership in his field. Llopis argues that this is a slippery slope because it requires a constant internal filter (slippery slope is my phrase, not his). I think he’s right. If you decide to jump into social media, you need to be prepared to balance every interaction, every conversation, every uploaded photo and every comment against your personal brand. You can’t afford to be sloppy, or you run the risk of hurting your brand.

Nevertheless, social media probably isn’t the best place to start developing your personal brand.

If (and I believe it is) your personal brand is your values and how they are reflected by your actions, it’s important to start there. Too many of us look into the mirror with rose-colored glasses. In the mirror, we’re likely more attractive than we really are, we’re nicer than we might really be and we’re a heck of a lot smarter than we probably are. Before you can build your personal brand, you need to do a real evaluation of who you are and what your personal brand is right now — because whether you know it or not, you already have a personal brand.

This is particularly true for leaders.

Over the course of my career I’ve known a number of people who believed their own PR. In other words, they believed the image they saw in the mirror was an accurate view of who they really were and didn’t make any real effort to become what they wanted to be. One time I was even tasked to come up with a strategy to improve the public image of an executive because his current personal brand wasn’t very flattering, even though he didn’t want to otherwise do anything about it.

I wish I could say my prowess in that regard was able to make a difference, but it wasn’t. Under those conditions, it’s a lot like putting lipstick on a pig.

What’s more, if you currently have a bad personal brand, there isn’t a short-term solution. Sure, you can publish articles, make public appearances and promote a more positive brand image. But if you’ve had a bad brand for a long time, it will likely take a long time to reverse it. Remember, your brand is not who you say you are, it’s who you are. This can be particularly troubling for people who ignore their brand.

I remember the uproar a few years back when NBA great Charles Barkley declared he was not a role model. Unfortunately, whether he liked it or not, to many young kids who marveled at his skill on the court, he was. The same is true for those who lead organizations. You are a role model, and your personal brand establishes the tone for the rest of the organization and determines whether or not people are engaged or anxiously trying to escape.

At least 20 or so years ago I read Stephen Covey’s Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. It’s not as well recognized as his 7 Habits books, but his insight into the spiritual nature of how we interact with people resonated with me. I think there is something to this in terms of how we “reflect” a personal brand. He suggested that there are techniques that will help us manage, communicate and otherwise interact with people, but ultimately techniques fall flat. Character traits like honesty, integrity, courtesy and kindness are not techniques we should learn, but rather something we should strive to assimilate into our very natures.

I’m sure there are those who would suggest, “I can’t change the way I am.” I disagree.

I think there’s hope for those who really want to create and reflect a positive personal brand, which I believe includes some of the above-mentioned character traits. Author Jean Kerr said, “Man is the only animal that learns by being hypocritical. He pretends to be polite and then, eventually, he becomes polite.” I think this is true for any of those traits reflected in a good personal brand.

Dr. Covey wrote, “As with physical exercise, those of us who say we haven’t time for ‘spiritual aerobics’ are excuse-making and will find ourselves, whenever the situation calls for strength beyond our reserve, incapacitated by self doubt, envy, jealousy, pride, fear, anger, bad tempers, all indicating a lack of spiritual oxygen.”

Although most people at the entrepreneur support group Lendio don’t refer to their “personal brand” in those specific terms, the traits and behaviors reflected in a personal brand are very important and a big part of how we choose to interact together as colleagues.

As important as building a positive personal brand is to an effective leader, it doesn’t happen with a PR campaign or social media, it starts with your values and how you act on those values in every interaction with your employees, your colleagues, your customers and the world.

As a main street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for lendio.com.

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