A decade ago it was easy to manage your personal brand. Back then, a personal brand was no more complicated than “I’m an Inventory Analyst for Sears.” When LinkedIn (LNKD) launched in 2003, I’d use that as my job title on the site without thinking twice about it. Nowadays, personal branding is more complicated.
We have a brand that’s separate from the one our employer has designated for us—that is, different from our job title. Whether we reflect it on our LinkedIn profile or not, we’ve got a brand, a network, and, in the best case, a plan for our career that is distinct from our employer’s plan for us. (Begging the question: Does your employer have a plan for your career?)
Employment is over, and the sooner we accept that knowledge, the better for us, whether we’re employees or CEOs. The social contract that HR people like me worried about in the 1980s is shredded. The corporate ladder lies in sawdust at our feet. A career today is a series of assignments, whether with one employer or many; long tenure in one shop doesn’t guarantee continued employment with that firm, for 20 years or 20 minutes. When we talk about a solid company, we’re saying that the entity has been around a long time; we’re not saying the same people have been there for a long time, or that anyone employed in that organization will necessarily be working there tomorrow.
I worked for a great company in Chicago called U.S. Robotics, which was sold in 1997 to another firm called 3Com. A few years later, 3Com sold off the name U.S. Robotics to another outfit that had zero connection to the original firm, but which claimed to be a trusted name in data communications for decades. Trusted name? No doubt. Same people, same vision, same mojo; that’s anybody’s guess?
These days we’re all independent contractors, although some of us are paid via W-2. The distinction between “inside” and “outside” people—a cultural divide 15 years ago—is a payroll detail now. Each of us is responsible for our own career. We are CEOs of small businesses, even if we’re full-time salaried employees. This is one of the reasons personal branding has become a sensitive topic. Employers want to control their employees’ branding, and they try to exercise that control via social media usage policies, but is that fair? Any employee could be looking for a new job tomorrow. An employee needs a network and a reputation (for thought leadership, for instance) as badly as the employer needs those assets on its own balance sheet.
The ramifications of this monumental shift are big, but employers have been slow to change their thinking about leadership and HR practices. If we want to hire and keep smart and savvy people—the ones who can best burnish a corporation’s brand—we have to work harder at managing in this ecosystem. The sharpest people know that their personal brands, their résumés, and their networks are their most valuable assets. They aren’t willing to turn over those gems to a large employer in exchange for just a paycheck.
They demand plum assignments (aka résumé fodder), varied responsibilities (ditto), and life/work flexibility. The employers who get the memo first will snag and keep the brightest lights in the talent ecosystem, which is to say the people with the most (and most appealing) alternatives. That’s how supply and demand works.
Is your organization tuned in to the 2013 talent marketplace? If so, by now you’ve likely shed hidebound performance-review systems and pointless forced-ranking exercises. You’ve probably burned the policy manual and shifted closer to a results-only culture. How could it be otherwise? Those employers who cling to past practices will lag their competitors. If you’re in one of those organizations—or, even more unfortunately, running one—consider this a memo from the future. Employment is over, and so is the superstructure of tedious, overbearing, fear-based management practices that kept employees quiet, complacent, and disconnected from the world outside their corporate walls for so long.
Will your firm stride into this new world fearlessly? Or pretend that nothing has changed?