Your Brand is Exhaust Fume, not the Engine

“How do you manage your brand?” I get asked that question really often, especially at public-venue speaking events. Typically, I sigh. It is not that the question is silly, or the questioner shallow, but because this question itself represents so much of what is stopping all of us from doing work that matters.

We talk about “reinventing your brand” when in reality the goal is to reinvent what you work on. We talk about the “brand called you” when we talk about being able to do more of the work you love to do. We talk about ways to “deliver on the impact equation” without asking first, “what is it you want to impact?” We are told by marketing gurus that “everyone now owns a media company!” — as if somehow this is, itself, the goal — rather than a means to an end. Marketing has become the default language — the lingua franca of the day — that we use to describe work, and it is distorting how we evaluate what matters.

Yes, it’s true that web tools can let you be known for the work you do more easily and more cost effectively, letting you own how you present yourself to the world. But that’s probably the least interesting thing about these social constructs and social media tools.

The much more relevant point is that you now get to create, share, and connect ideas with others to do work, ideally meaningful and impactful work. As in the person who was able to accelerate scientific research because of the online game, “Fold It.” This particular game enables important research in the medical field, research that is usually conducted by scientists with PhDs. But making it a game that anyone could play allowed someone “unexpected” to help. A woman who worked as an executive assistant by day turned out to be the best protein folder in the world at night.

As I’ve written in more depth elsewhere, connected individuals can now achieve what once only centralized organizations could. The implications for this are huge. It changes the basis of market power for organizations because size no longer protects competitive advantage. It changes management because people can figure out for themselves what needs to be done to implement the larger strategy. It changes careers because we no longer need to belong to an organization to be able to create scale or impact. You don’t even need to be “old enough” — five-year olds can invent consumer goods products. Today, what matters is the ability to create, not the ability to first prove you can.

So let’s stop using the language of marketing to talk about meaning.

The truth is this: The brand follows the work. Your brand is the exhaust created by the engine of your life. It is a by-product of what happens as you share what you are creating, and with whom you are creating.

It is a sign, yes. Significant, yes. But the real signal comes from being able to answer these two questions:

What is it you care about? It takes courage to find and follow an individual path; finding our own path takes us off the path that others are following, in directions that can seem distinctly alone. Each of us is standing in a place no one else stands in as a function of our history, experience, vision and hopes. I call this onlyness, that thing that only you can bring to any situation. Go with it, and you end up being able to design your own life — and maybe redesign entire industries, too. At the very least, it lets you improve the results of any group you are a part of. Berkeley professors Charlan Jeanne Nemeth and Jack A. Goncalo have proven that “minority viewpoints” aid the quality of decision making by juries, by teams, and for the purpose of innovation. In other words, even when distinct points of view turn out to be wrong, speaking them lets everyone think better, create more solutions, and improve creativity. But if you don’t know what it is you care about and why, you lack the ability to contribute meaningfully.

How will you find and work with allies? While it may be lonely to step into your own path, once you do, you attract those with affinity. The clearer you are in your onlyness, the strong your magnet for the right people for you (and possibly repulsion for others.) This is a good thing. It helps you find, filter, and formulate. It eliminates wasted effort to convince those who will never be convinced. It lets you know what kind of workplace is right for you, and it lets you find the right people for your projects. It lets you align in purpose with others. Esther Dyson points out that the “trick today is not just to find the right target (that is, a person), as social networks such as LinkedIn and search tools can do, but to enlist allies and manage the work to achieve a specific goal.” (Emphasis mine.) Proximity used to reign supreme — where you lived, what school you went to, and whom your parents knew was more of a factor in what opportunities you had. Proximity is still one factor, but in the social era, the other four Ps of community end up growing in importance and power. Communities of passion who share a common interest (photography, or food, or books) can inform new product lines. Communities of purpose willingly share a common task to build something (like Wikipedia) together. Communities of practice, who share a common career or field of business, will extend your offer if it extends their expertise (like Intuit has with its accountant community). Communities of providence allow people to discover connections with others (as in Google+) and thus enable the sharing of information, products, and ideas.

Just recently, I passed up an opportunity to serve on a Fortune 100 Board of Directors. The company has a well-known history of dysfunctional board dynamics and it became clear to me that there was little one person could do to change it. When a friend asked why I was still considering the opportunity, I answered, “It would lend me legitimacy.” When I heard those words come out of my mouth, I knew I had to turn it down. If I’d said yes, it would have been because of “brand” — because I’d want readers like you to see me with more esteem. But in truth, it wouldn’t have meant I was doing more good work.

I’ve studied how actual value is created for over 10 years now, and what I know to be true is this: While what people think of us does matter, what matters much more is our ability to do and deliver. That’s what makes the ultimate difference in the world. And that’s what reputations are really built on. That’s what will draw people to you.

Yes, we are in the middle of a vast sea change in which social can put the power of connection to work to solve meaningful problems. But in order to do that more meaningful work, we need to recognize what is holding us back. In a world of “personal brand” and “leadership brand” and “personal reinvention” and so forth, we should not forget: the real signal is the work itself, and the social signaling is just its echo.

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