Make It Personal

Employee engagement is highly prized by human resources leaders, but it’s often difficult to achieve. Decades of organizational change — stemming from mergers and acquisitions, economic dislocation, global integration and technological transformation — have altered employee attitudes about company allegiance. Employees now routinely place their own needs ahead of those of their employer to protect their career interests.

According to 2014 survey research from management consulting firm Deloitte, nearly 80 percent of2,500 HR professionals and business executives said engagement is the second most significant issue challenging business leaders behind leadership development. Yet just 24 percent of those surveyed said they’re ready to respond to this trend.

While the data may appear discouraging, HR executives have an untapped resource at their disposal that might help cultivate a higher degree of engagement: personal brand. 

Personal branding raises employee visibility and provides many individual benefits, namely internal mobility, professional growth and career advancement. But it also produces secondary benefits to the organization: cross-business collaboration, desired leadership behaviors, relationship building and organizational trust. 

The great triumph of the marketing profession is that everything has become a brand. From consumer products to the companies that produce them to celebrities and politicians — everything under the sun can be thought of as a brand.

But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the concept became applicable to anyone and everyone. 

In 1997, Tom Peters wrote what became a famous article for Fast Company called “The Brand Called You,” which many credit as the first use of the term “personal brand.” Applying the principles of marketing, Peters insisted that people had become free agents, striving to stand out from the pack in what was then — and arguably is still today — an ultracompetitive business environment for professionals. And to do so successfully, people needed to find creative ways to market themselves.

Loads of business authors, consultants and the like piled on the personal brand bandwagon, with the hope of cashing in on the new wave of demand to learn the secrets to personal marketing and branding. Today, a simple Google search of the term will return millions of links to books, websites, articles, career coaches and consultants.

Personal Brand = Reputation (Identity + Image)

Still, not everyone agrees on the definition of personal brand. The American Marketing Association, in its “Dictionary of Marketing Terms,” defines a brand as a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one company’s goods or services as distinct from the goods and services of others in a similar market. 

These brands, according to the AMA definition, embody a host of intangibles that include identity (elements that make a brand recognizable), image (a customer’s perception of a brand) and reputation (the socially propagated and aggregated opinion of a brand). When these concepts are applied to human beings, they create what many refer to as personal brand (Figure 1).

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The framework in Figure 1 points to a close relationship between the concepts of identity, image and reputation. In a landmark research study published in a 2001 issue of the Corporate Reputation Review, researchers Gary Davies, Rosa Chun, Rui Vinhas da Silva and Stuart Roper look at reputation as a combination of identity and image.

When applied to personal brand, an individual’s expression of identity is communicated through the person’s skills, actions, values and beliefs, which are then interpreted by others. The    interpretation process leads to the perception of the individual’s external image and may also influence the identity of the individual. To the extent with which the individual’s communications are interpreted consistently across multiple stakeholders reflects that individual’s reputation. That reputation is then perpetuated as an environmental factor that will lead to a set of outcomes for the individual. 

For example, a person who views his or her self as afinance expert will likely showcase his or her expertise in that area. To that end, such a person may volunteer to preside at meetings, provide expertise to various stakeholder groups and deliver presentations at conferences. The end result could involve compensation increases, assignment of special projects, a promotion or transfer to a new department. 

Personal Brand and Engagement

Popular articles and books tend to play up the notion that people who master personal branding techniques often demonstrate greater passion for their work, generate more value for their organizations and move farther up the corporate ladder. If only a sliver of this portrayal is accurate, then it would seem logical that HR leaders would want to harness these employee attributes to achieve greater business results and retain high-performing employees.

According to a 2006 article by Clayton Glenn published in Industrial and Commercial Training, skilled employees seek experiences — involvement in stretch assignments, lateral moves,participation in special projects or teams — to develop their careers and enhance their personal marketability. Knowledgeable talent management professionals understand that by offering these opportunities and communicating them clearly in a work environment, they can provide a powerful force convincing employees to stay. Doing this could also be a potent driver of new talent from the outside.

Therefore, educating employees about the benefits of doing things like volunteering for special projects, participating in employee resource groups or finding mentors is an empowering process that could lead toward increased engagement. As Ivan Robertson and Gary Cooper argue in theLeadership & OrganizationDevelopment Journal, developing people already in the organization is a means of promoting heightened levels of engagement and wellness.

Tonya Harris Cornileus, vice president of learning and organization at sports media giant ESPN Inc., said its employees develop personal brand by demonstrating competence, accountability and value.

“A leader will increase his or her brand equity by willingly sharing their knowledge and skills with others to achieve results, delivering on commitments and doing whatever it takes to win as a team,” she said. “As is the case in team sports, ESPN’s cultural value of ‘winning as a team’ is something the employee must balance with self-promotion.”

She continued: “While overt and constant self-promotion is not recommended, employees do learn how to promote a positive reflection of themselves to help others understand what makes them unique and valuable. This learning begins with the employee’s 70-20-10 approach to self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Through participation in courses, assessments, mentoring and coaching and on-the-job assignments, employees have an abundance of resources to help them develop and cultivate their personal brand.”

Organizations have the opportunity to create alignment between personal brand and employer brand or personal brand and critical employer and employee outcomes. Employees who understand the relationship between their personal brand and the organization’s brand, mission or values are better positioned to connect with their colleagues and are motivated to offer their discretionary effort.

An example of an employee engagement model that is also connected to the conceptual framework is found in Figure 2.

The personal brand engagement model calls for human resources leaders to take a value-added role in working with employees to establish effective personal brands. By weaving branding and marketing approaches into their training initiatives and communications with employees, the HR function is able to keep employee personal brands aligned with the organization’s corporate brand while assessing personal brand effectiveness through existing or new talent management practices. 

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These talent management practices are informed by data gleaned from employee performance outcomes captured through performance evaluations and other potentially relevant assessment processes — talent reviews, 360 feedback reports, customer feedback, key performance indicators, employee climate survey data or mentoring programs. 

Personal branding offers talent management executives another tool to produce effects that reach beyond individual employees in their organizations. Moreover, branding can benefit employees by getting them involved in activities that foster professional networking, stimulate volunteerism behavior and increase personal visibility. 

Reputation enhancement also involves cooperative actions with others — offering help, sharing information, investing business and personal resources  — which ultimately provide direct benefits to all employees in an organization.

To learn more about how to build a personal within your organization, read the sidebar that accompanies this feature here.