Yesterday’s post on branding actually started because I have been thinking extensively about personal branding throughout my just-completed job search. Looking for a job entails trying to find a plausible intersection between one’s background and skills, one’s interests and career aspirations, and what a company needs. For a generalist like me, this gets particularly interesting as I have a broad background scattered across several industries and career paths, with a corresponding lack of specialized skills. Because most companies post specialized positions, my resume is generally not a good match, and so it is up to me to frame my background and experience in such a way as to make me attractive to the company.
This framing reflects the fact that interviewing is a sales process, convincing a company that what they need is what you offer. At one extreme, one can go about this dishonestly, puffing up one’s resume and claiming accomplishments that were driven by others. At the other extreme, one can be lucky enough to be a perfect fit for what a company needs (eight years ago, Signature BioScience’s job listing for a software engineer matched my resume perfectly, right down to the physics background). But in most cases, the situation is somewhere in between (note the similarities to yesterday’s post about the need for companies to frame their brand for potential customers).
What most job candidates don’t realize is that it’s up to the candidate to sell the company on themselves as a match. When looking at a resume or cover letter, companies are looking for a reason to say no and reduce their options, so if they have to work to figure out how and why a candidate would be a match for the position, the application gets rejected. I struggled with this in my recent job search, trying to find positions where I could plausibly match up aspects of my background with the posted requirements for a job. So I had to put together a cover letter for each potential position that drew the appropriate connections between what I’ve done and what the company needed.
Making these connections between seemingly disconnected topics turns out to be a great application of my ability to look at things from multiple perspectives. I can look at a job opening from the company’s perspective, and emphasize the relevant skills I could bring to that job. One mistake that many candidates make is thinking that it’s important for them to list off all of their positive attributes in their interview or resume, as they are looking at things from their own perspective. What’s more effective is to list only the positive attributes that are relevant to the company, and finding a way to turn what could be perceived negatives into positives. My Columbia mentor emphasized the importance of following up every negative with a positive e.g. “Well, I have not done that specifically, but I have done these other tasks that are similar in these ways.”
One other interesting development during this job search was my realization that I have become more comfortable with my personal brand as a generalist. I can admit to myself that I am better at thinking across disciplines and considering the big picture than I am at specializing and making sure all the details are right, instead of trying to be good at everything. This was a negative with many potential jobs – companies want to be able to abstract away details by hiring a specialist to handle them. So I rejected jobs in software development and project management, as those moved me further away from my strengths and interests. At one point in my life, I would have been far more concerned about trying to build on my previous background, and molding myself to fit those types of jobs. Instead, I stuck to my generalist brand, explaining to companies that I was better at figuring out how the pieces fit together into a coherent whole than I was at doing any of the individual pieces. Not everybody sees the value of that, but the ones that do are likely to be better places for me.
This gets back to the idea of embracing a specific vision for a brand rather than trying to be everything to everybody. It also has helped me start to zero in on the things I want to be doing, rather than the things I am necessarily qualified to do at this time. Part of what I want is to spend more time on the types of issues I discuss on this blog. Part of it is becoming an advisor of sorts, bringing the people around me a fresh perspective on themselves and their issues. Part of it is being a connector, figuring out which ideas go together, and which people should be talking to each other. It’s still an inchoate vision, but I think my friends are starting to see where I’m going with this and helping me to shape that vision and my future. And it’s a virtuous circle, as people’s perceptions reinforce my vision of myself which continues to shape people’s perceptions.
Part of what’s been good about this job search is realizing what I don’t want to do; as I expressed a few weeks ago, a vision is as much to determine what not to do as it is to determine what should be done. It’s been frustrating for my friends in that they wanted to help me find a job, but I kept on rejecting ideas that they had as not being quite right without being able to concisely express what why their ideas weren’t right. Being able to have a better answer for the kind of work I wanted to do is part of what I’m trying to figure out with my personal brand.
It’s also difficult because most job searches start with what one has done previously and building on that, but I was looking for something different than what I’ve done before so that I could continue to broaden my experience. I was looking for positions where my eclectic and broad background was an asset rather than a liability. One of the reasons I liked the Google position is that it draws on all aspects of my career so far – my analytical skills from my physics days, my technical understanding from my development days, and my developing business and strategy skills from the last three years – while giving me a chance to add yet more skills to my toolbox.
Getting back to the idea of personal branding, the difficulty of branding is not just deciding what one stands for, but ensuring that one’s brand is successfully communicated to one’s target audience. In the interview process, one must frame one’s personal career brand (project manager, software developer, or generalist) as being what the company is looking to hire. If one were looking to date, it’s projecting an appropriate image to attract the desired demographic. This is a tricky process, and gets back to the questions of morality and truth that I touched upon briefly in yesterday’s post. Who are we really? And what does that question even mean if one takes the idea of multiple social identities seriously?
Another concept I mentioned in yesterday’s branding post is the idea of enlisting customers as advocates – what would this mean in personal branding? In the realm of job searching, I think this is just networking, enlisting friends and former coworkers to help one find a new job. We all have friends who are looking out for us, and looking for ways to help us move forward – these are our advocates of our personal brand, whatever it is.
I like the idea of a personal brand, mostly as a way of framing for myself the decisions I’m making about the type of career I’m currently pursuing, the kind of person I want to be, and how I convey those decisions to other people. It’s the same problem that companies face when trying to define who they are in the marketplace, so applying similar techniques to my life would probably be helpful.
So what’s your personal brand? How would you define yourself in one sentence?