A Lesson in Personal Branding

Arranged by a headhunter, I was having my first ‘getting to know you’ session with the CEO of a tech start-up. He was looking to appoint a marketing leader, and all the omens signaled them as the next big thing in the world of pre-IPO startups. To say I was interested would be an understatement.

Having had my share of dealings with unremarkable CEO’s who were either indifferent to, or unconvinced by marketing, I went into the meeting with nothing more than the expectation of a good conversation. Ten minutes into proceedings, I was surprised at just how well we’d connected. During the course of our chat, he demonstrated a sharp head for business, enthusiasm about the product and belief in the potential of his company.

Most crucially, he showed a keen interest in building a strong brand identity to scale the business globally.

Outside of CMO circles, I’d rarely come across such commitment to investing in marketing from the c-suite. I was sold. The display of unwavering belief that marketing held the key to accelerating growth was so infectious that if I’d been made an offer there and then, I probably would have shook his hand in acceptance.

Billed as ‘chemistry meetings’, these sessions have become commonplace for roles higher up the pecking order. Not dissimilar to an interview, they’re a less structured exercise in organizational courting, where you size each other up to determine whether you share the same values, talk the same language, and essentially have the compatibility to gel as a management team.

If you’re at the jobseeker end of the table, you’ll be expected to put your best foot forward and turn up the like-ability dial. Aware of the fact you’re being judged, you’ll aim to appear self-assured and attempt to showcase the best version of you. Left-brain thinkers will keep their own interests in perspective with self-imposed scrutiny that asks: ‘will I enjoy working at this company?… are there any alarm bells going off in my head?’ and ‘can I actually see myself working for this person?’ And all the while, you’ll be looking for signs of appreciation for the skills and knowledge you’re bringing to the table, knowing it’s these assets that will eventually prevail to seal the deal.

These days, the ability to get the job done is no longer the sole criteria to determine credibility, as candidates are evaluated against a myriad of other soft skills. Most of these are accepted as universally relevant—having a high EQ, being able to articulate creative ideas succinctly, the potential to be liked by peers, maturity of thinking, etc. And then there are the less conventional attributes that conform to certain cultural norms or personality types. These days, the soft skills deemed desirable have increasingly evolved beyond a general consensus. In fact, I’m finding they’ve become highly subjective to each individual interviewer, making the process even more of a minefield to navigate.

As humans, we naturally gravitate towards people we can establish powerful emotional connections. In an interview scenario, the tricky part is knowing which specific points have a perceived premium, and therefore must be part of your repertoire. A hiring manager may look for certain character traits because they want to achieve a higher emotional bond with a candidate. Alternatively, they may focus elsewhere in the belief that these skills are fundamentally essential to what makes a great hire.

Such attributes are almost impossible to prepare for ahead of time, and it’s incredibly frustrating when they become the sole focus for measuring candidate caliber. As I was to learn later that day.

There are many things I take stock of in preparation for an interview scenario, but my social presence – or lack of it at the time, wasn’t something I cared to give much thought. The Web is a fantastic reference book where you can find anything you want if you know where to look. As any quick study would do, I’d already put in the time to patch together an impression of this CEO, thanks to his very public footprint of blog posts and social commentary. So did he, but to much lesser success. So when the topic of why I didn’t have a more active digital presence came up, it made for a rather unwelcome diversion.

Increasingly, marketing folk have developed a reputation for being highly adept at ‘brand me’ exhibitionism. This was clearly an indirect way of asking why I wasn’t marketing myself through the abundance of digital channels out there. With a degree of trepidation, I went on to explain that with the exception of LinkedIn, I have a tiny digital footprint. I’d never been interested in profile building, and often cringe when confronted with vacuous, ego-stroking content being produced by some of my peers.

It simply boils down to two facts: I have a life outside of work and therefore refuse to let my profession define who I am. And secondly, I value my privacy too much to allow for every waking thought in my head to be recorded publicly for consumption. Mine is a matter of personal choice, which stems from the belief that your marketing success barometer isn’t proportional to the visibility of your digital persona.

Faced with a CEO who had built a company culture firmly grounded in social collaboration, it seemed illogical that someone with so much to offer wouldn’t want to share expertise with others. The problem with taking such a stand is its contradictory nature to so much of how marketing is done today, relying heavily on social media efficacy and digital platforms.

As a marketer, when you admit to not doing social media – no matter how salient your reasons, it can get misinterpreted as lacking digital-native skills. It can even be a proverbial death knell that chimes ‘this marketer is out of touch’.

My defiant statement was what brought our courting to an abrupt end. An enthusiastic and prolific consumer of all things digital, this CEO had clearly come with the expectation to meet a marketing personality, fluent in digital and social. My oblivious reticence towards building a digital profile was interpreted as a vocational weakness. I’d committed a massive disservice to myself by pinning my colors to the ‘incapable of digital mastery’ mast.

Needless to say, we never got the opportunity to work together, but I do need to thank him publicly for teaching me a valuable lesson.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, reinforcing the notion that there’s no place in this industry for quiet self-preservation or modesty. This wasn’t really about the size of my digital footprint after all, but a lesson learnt in how not to overlook one of the fundamental principles of marketing: promotion.

My chemistry meeting didn’t result in a reinvention to transform myself into an online marketing oracle. However it did make me focus on the one aspect I’d neglected for years: the importance of building a personal brand.

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