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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Leverage Your Employees’ Personal Brands for Mutual Benefit




You haven't lived until you've had an argument over "brand versus reputation."

A long time ago when I started working as a brand consultant I had this very discussion with somebody else in the firm.

It was their espoused philosophy that functionally, brand and reputation were the same, and that the language was easier for clients to swallow. Nobody wants to be stamped with a brand like a can of Pepsi.

I was an impractical idealist who belonged in a university and not a consultancy, and so I insisted very Talmudically that branding connoted all aspects of image while reputation was limited to only a few. Further, that a brand could be "negative," in a way, and still succeed. (Though reputation always matters.)

For some reason the disagreement took on proportions way beyond the issue itself. Because within the firm, my point of view represented a different philosophy - a different point of view - and it wasn't clear what they could do with it.

In the end we came up with a way to box my personality off and put it a different corner - creating a standalone brand out of it. This was a smart move on the part of my employer. They recognized that I was different, and they used that in a way that benefited both of us. (Disclaimer: Separately, I write thought leadership posts for this firm that espouse their unique philosophy; no endorsement expressed or implied.)

What I did for the firm was useful. But it was still difficult for the small group to tolerate having such a different personality onboard. One of the partners tried to give me advice. "Bring them along," he said. "It's hard for them to deal with someone who is off on her own while they work as a team."

If I could go back and do it over again, I think we could have communicated more clearly the distinction between my role (brand) and the others'. Using supporting communication materials that looked different from what the rest of the group was doing. Using sophisticated internal communication to make sure that everyone was clear about who was doing what. To reinforce mutual respect and understanding.

But it was a small firm, we moved pretty fast, and words like "personal branding" were never even used. Heck, we had a hard time using the word "branding" to begin with (see above).

Go to the bookstore and you will see all these self-help books about change. Employer manuals, too, try to "orient" you to the company. But in the end, people are who they are. The traditional way to recruit them is to find people who are "just like" you. Like-minded folks. (Zappos pays people who don't fit in to leave.)

Another, perhaps more strategic thing to do is to purposefully seek out people who "think different." And have them contribute in a different way than those in the mainstream. Calling it something different. Leveraging their personal brand.

Somebody at work, seeing me program stuff on the computer, likened me to the character in NCIS who sits in a lab in the basement, experimenting away in her wacky lab environment. I had a good laugh over that, because it's pretty true. I'm not like the rest of the group - I never have been. Everyone is different, I know what I can do, and I put it to work for my employer.

If you are the employer, go beyond a "tolerance for diversity" to making it work for you through sub-branding and strategic brand architecture. What you should be doing is collecting a portfolio of personal brands, and making money from them.

Here are five things you can do:

1. Encourage employees to develop their individual skills on company time - and develop new products and services (Like Google)

2. Pay for them to go to school on their personal time. (My agency does this.)

3. Host a blog space where they are free to hold forth. Add a disclaimer that clearly outlines whose views they are representing. (Like Gartner)

4. Empower them to be mini-entrepreneurs on behalf of the company. Take a cut of the profits. (My former employer does this.)

5. Communicate back to the rest of the organization when an employee "mini-brand" has achieved success, and publicly congratulate them. (Common knowledge but often underutilized.)

I hope these tips are helpful to you. If you have others, please share.

Have a great day everyone, and good luck!

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Image source here.