Personal branding might be job search answer

From the Archives

Originally published December 24, 2014

Do you sometimes feel braggy when crafting your CV or résumé? Do you think you come across as cocky during job interviews? Crazy thing is that in business – and job hunting is your business – it’s not bragging at all. It’s marketing. More to the point, it’s self-marketing, or personal branding, as the industry will tell you to call it. For example, my out-of-the-spotlight nature has led me to downplay some talents and skills that could land me my next job. Are you also removing yourself from gainful opportunities by skimping on these traits and abilities? Let’s take a look at how this plays out…

First, I’m an entrepreneur, and in my example to follow, it is the entrepreneurial skill set on which I’m primarily focused. Some years ago, when I discussed my small business experience during interviews, it seemed that interviewers were turned off. Perhaps some thought that the business was more important to me (never has been) than a job in establishment and that the former would distract me from being effective in the latter (never has). Others maybe believed that my entrepreneurial spirit would cause a fast burnout in the position for which I was interviewing. They might have been correct. Still others might not have valued the skills and traits that make entrepreneurs successful in the workplace. Whatever the reasons, discussing my role as a business owner did me little or no good during job interviews, so I stopped talking about it and removed the experience from my résumé.

Second, it’s worth noting that my résumés have changed not only in content, as new jobs and experiences entered my life, but also in format, as different hiring managers and online resources point to different formats that appeal to prospective employers. For a long time, I kept to a one-page format, and in order to do that well, I slipped into a more comfortable functional format. When I solicited feedback from hiring managers, many insisted I send my one-pager in chronological format. To sell many and varied accomplishments in that format without spilling onto a second page, I condensed a lot of marketable info into what appeared to be paragraphs as bullet points. Feedback was “more white space, less density,” and was born my current one-page format with a few scant bullet points per job title.

Finally, when I caught up with two former coworkers for light dinner and drinks – I drank water, though – one colleague talked about the value of entrepreneurial leaders who can start and turn around companies versus others who are adept at implementing ongoing changes and growth. An idea started forming in my mind, and that weekend, I started listing ways I could market my skills and traits as an experienced and serial entrepreneur. Two evenings later, my uncle told me that he and his sons were discussing my job search, and together they concluded that I’m not “selling” myself right. In other words, we had all unknowingly agreed that my personal branding is way off.

Let’s look at how my personal branding strategy has failed me in recent months. My uncle told me that he and my cousins agreed that for someone who has started or helped start numerous companies and who has been instrumental in taking on challenging turnaround situations for established nonprofits, there simply isn’t enough of that on my résumé or in my interviews. It’s true. I sometimes feel as if I’m bragging to speak of my role in turnaround and cleanup efforts in the established companies for which I’ve worked in the last 10 years. Truth be told, I’m a change leader and a change agent; I have been both catalyst and cheerleader for change everywhere I’ve worked. Somewhere along the line, I fed into the myth that no employer wants to hear this about someone they’re considering hiring.

Another point my uncle made is that I’ve probably lost sight of the value of these skills and special abilities and therefore don’t play up how much value I can bring to an employer. I would argue to say that I do my share of letting prospective employers know that I bring experience and value to the table; still, have I been leaving out particular value that I fear will turn off hiring managers during review of my cover letter and résumé? Insert a resounding “yes.”

The epiphany I reached on Sunday, one that I documented as the thoughts occurred to me, is that I’m at a stage of my career at which my entrepreneurial skills have more value for a company, especially companies seeking people to come aboard before or during growth spurts. And it’s not bragging to point that out when introducing myself to prospective employers. Consider this history:

In my first job – a part-time-turned-full-time gig in IT – I was integral in changing the way we recorded and tracked IT help requests. Later, I helped streamline the way we translated district-imposed disciplinary forms into our separate discipline/incident database for other data we tracked.

In my next full-time job, again in IT, I turned a 17-computer lab with only three Internet-connected computers (and even they had popups, malware, and viruses) that didn’t print into a 20-computer lab, all with clean operating systems and full Internet and printer access. Later, I was recruited to assist the Finance Director, and within weeks updated all fiscal forms, communicated new fiscal policies and procedures to staff, streamlined the flow of communication, and revamped and expanded the filing system. Our responsibilities and team grew during my tenure as second in command in that department.

When I joined the employer I most recently left, I asserted stringent turnaround goals for the finance team, goals at which my superiors scoffed when I shared. Within my first two months, I had achieved all goals, despite the setback of having a major moving part of my plan removed a month after I joined the team there. Moreover, I turned around things that were difficult to measure: relationships and trust. A glowing e-mail from a least likely colleague – one who hated our department and for a long time demonstrated no trust in our words or abilities – was testament to that achievement.

As you read the above anecdotes, did they feel braggy? My fear is that that they always do. Those anecdotes are devoid of personal feelings about the job, coworkers, management, position, title, or salary. They are stripped down to the bare facts of what actually happened. In the two latter cases, I worked with little or no support from upper management. (This is especially true of the last story.) Regardless of how you interpret those three examples, this is the message: I almost never talk about those things unless pressed during an interview because I fear coming across as a bragger. The truth is that there are particular strengths and skills involved in those accomplishments that I’ve overlooked. My new personal branding message is clear: I’m an entrepreneur. All the Skills, Talents, Abilities, Competencies, and Knowledge that come with it (watch this…) S.T.A.C.K. the odds in my favor.

Know your worth. What are you not STACKing in your favor? Discover those things within you. Brand yourself with them.

Update: More recent resume and cover letters, even this personal branding website, emphasize a different acronym – TACT – that continues to sum up what I do, including in my current job: Troubleshooting, Analysis, Cleanup, and Turnaround. It’s not bragging to acknowledge what a lifetime of professional experience has wrought. It’s marketing. More to the point, it’s personal branding. TACT is my personal brand.