“What do you want leaders to say about you after you leave the room?”
This question was posed to employees at a personal brand workshop emphasizing attention to professional image including “performance, reputation, and network.” Reasonable in the context of career management, several years into the social, political, and economic upheaval of Covid-19 the advice sounded hollow.
A coworker’s private reaction, “I shouldn’t have to be concerned about what they say about me when I leave the room,” shows how the suggestion of a personal brand can be perceived in today’s workplace.
Brands simplify relationships, differentiate between like items, and quickly align a product with consumers. A personal brand can facilitate your relationship with an employer, distinguish you from peers, and clarify your value to clients and bosses alike. Decades ago, the separation between work and life resulted in most workers’ images being detached from outside interests, family life, and personal struggles all of which were considered irrelevant to the workplace.
Today, it’s harder to hide those parts of ourselves. Workplaces are full of flawed people who make decisions with children running around in the background of zoom meetings, amidst depression, financial difficulties, relationship challenges, caregiving, and chronic illness. For most employees there’s a general lack of perfection that looms over a ‘personal brand’ like an anvil waiting to fall.
And that’s the problem.
Failure? That can ruin the brand. Made a mistake? Rebrand your image so you can continue to compete at the level of your peers. As “work-life balance” transitions to just “balance” does an effort to create a personal brand perpetuate the unhealthy way we isolate the “worker” part of us from the rest? Part of the Great Resignation is employees demanding companies and leaders see them as a whole person, not just in the context of a cultivated image.
An alternative to “performance, reputation, and network,” is “capability, character, and connection.” Performance can be evaluated, ability can be cultivated. Reputation is perception, character is reality. And connection values the many ways we have positive impact that don’t always have economic or social capital.
Instead of asking employees to impress leaders by meeting external rubrics, businesses should shift to creating a culture that encourages the cultivation of intrinsic motivators. In this environment, when employees meet performance goals, mentor others, develop their skills, and volunteer their time and expertise, they are doing so not because they seek external recognition but instead, because they take pride in doing work aligned with their values.
We need to kill the personal brand so that the person can thrive. Companies and leaders that build an authentic alignment between their own values and their workers’ will perform at a level far beyond those that encourage employees to cultivate an image. When an employee leaves the room, they won’t have to care what leaders are saying about them because they’ll already know their value.