The foundation of a personal brand is initially created by consistently doing good work. From there, commenting, interacting and reacting in public discussion forums, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and the publication of articles and even books further solidify an individual as a thought leader. However, "the idea of personal brand is often associated with independent practitioners," as David Armano puts it. And for independents there are typically no conflicts as they are in the business of promoting themselves, their skills and knowledge. However, for practitioners working within corporations, the challenge becomes balancing your personal brand with the corporate brand.
Many opportunities for friction
As a corporate employee you don't represent "you" out in public -- you represent the company. The opinions and expertise you present all get attributed to your employer. If you say something controversial, the story that will propagate is not "John Smith said..." but "John Smith, Lead Developer for Company X, said..." Add to this the risk of disclosing proprietary or sensitive financial information and it's no surprise many corporations aren't interested in promoting individuals (outside of C-level executives) externally.
These same corporations are only now beginning to comprehend the power of the social web and don't understand the need for external "corporate ambassadors." Colleagues within the organization can also be points of friction as they begin to question whether the now-public practitioner is actually a "work horse or a show horse," as Christian Crumlish, Director of Consumer Experience at AOL, puts it. If it's not clear that the company is getting more benefit than the individual, resentment can build, causing the individual to start defending their activities.
Crumlish also suggests some companies are concerned that making their star employees visible exposes them to competitive employers looking to poach talent. This alone may make an organization reticent to promote individuals externally.
Overcoming these hurdles
There are specific ways to mitigate these risks:
Make your employer the star
To alleviate any concerns that you are attempting to promote your brand more than your employer's, make it obvious who your employer is and that you're speaking on their behalf. Any public facing documents you present must have company branding. This includes white papers, conference posters and slide decks. In addition to branding your thought leadership, all online profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al) and blogs should clearly disclose where you work. Finally, all client associations should also be disclosed to minimize the risk of perceived conflicts of interest or favoritism.
Luke Wroblewski, former Chief Design Architect at Yahoo! and Lead Designer at Ebay, who is a popular speaker at many design conferences, ensured all his presentations were branded with the Yahoo! and Ebay logos. Like Wroblewski, Crumlish, a mainstay on the design conference circuit, also made sure he was seen as a "Yahoo! Person" in all of his public efforts.
Make your colleagues smarter, bring back learnings
Conferences provide tremendous learning opportunities. As much as you are a presenter at these events, you must also be an attendee. The opportunities for learning and growth are tremendous. It's important to capture that knowledge and bring it back to your organization to share with your colleagues.
This shared learning can take two forms. The first is sharing the specific things you learned while at the event. These are the domain-specific elements you picked up from the other presenters.
The second is sharing with your colleagues how to become more successful and active within these external communities. You're likely not the only person in your organization interested in furthering their personal brand. Bringing this education to your colleagues and sharing your techniques on how to become more active minimizes any jealousy that may develop in your colleagues while positioning you as a mentor.
Your employer is now a thought leader
It's imperative to remind your superiors of the benefits the corporate brand gets from your exposure. Active engagement in industry-specific forums and conferences gives the company the chance to stand in front of peers as a thought leader and, in many cases, frame the conversation on a particular topic.
In addition, both your sales and talent acquisition departments benefit from the corporate brand enhancement you're facilitating. Every interaction that is publicly available from the employees of a company provides an opportunity to strengthen that company's public persona. Tweets and blog posts about the kind of work or processes taking place there humanize the company and increase the attraction of higher caliber employees as well as potential new customers.
Be bold, yet humble
In some situations it may prove more successful to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Write a blog post on an industry topic and share it publicly. If it drives discussion and positive perception of your employer, tell someone.
Attend the next local meetup and present a quick deck on your latest thinking. Did someone tweet about it? Share that with your boss. Was there a strong discussion on your blog that reflected well on your employer? Point your PR person to it. One word of caution though: ensure that you've consulted your company's policies on such activities, as Crumlish advises. You don't want to end up violating corporate rules that could put your job at risk.
Choose the right employer
As your personal brand has been developing and growing, has your employer been supportive? Is there a broad corporate understanding of the benefits you can bring through promoting your thought leadership externally? If the answer is 'No' then it may be time to evaluate new opportunities.
Becoming an independent practitioner is the easiest option but may not be viable for everyone. In that case, how much do prospective employers "get" the concept of employee empowerment? This is a discussion that should be clear from the outset with a potential new employer. Set the right expectations in your interviews and, if possible, have public-facing activities that grow both your personal brand and the corporate brand written into your job description.
Ultimately, for the personal brand to grow, the "company should get more value than the individual," as David Armano said. If that balance is off, then you should consider becoming independent. That doesn't mean that you cannot create, cultivate and curate a personal brand within a corporation. In fact, a personal brand can be crucial to your continued success and career progression. Be respectful of your employer and their policies but find creative ways to promote yourself while promoting your company at the same time. Personal branding enhances corporate branding. It makes the company appear more "human" and approachable. It makes people want to work there and it attracts good press. If balanced correctly, this is a win-win for all parties involved.
Note: This article originally appeared on Smashing Magazine on December 28, 2010.