June 10, 2014

Employee Branding: Who Are You, and Who Do You Aspire to Be?

“When employees really focus on who they are, who they aspire to be, and the changes they need to make, they stand out – because so many people don’t,” says Lisa Orrell, speaker, International Coach Federation-certified leadership coach, and author of Your Employee Brand Is in Your Hands. “So many people don’t act consistently. They don’t really know where they’re going. All of a sudden, it’s five years later, and they’re like, ‘Wow. I’m still at this company, and I’m not really happy.’”

These employees are not happy because their jobs are not the right fits for them. These roles don’t match who the employees are or who they want to be. Stuck in jobs they don’t enjoy – with no plans to get out of them – the employees’ work suffers. They are passed over for promotions because their performance is subpar.

In short, they trap themselves in an unhappy role, because they have no clarity about who they are and who they want to become. Sure, these employees might have vague notions of who they are; they might even have some ill-defined dreams about where they’re going to end up. What they need, though, is definitive structure: they need to know exactly who they are, exactly where they want to go, and, most importantly, what they need to do to become the person they aspire to be.

How do employees get this clarity? According to Orrell, they get it by consciously building and actively maintaining their personal brands. “When you’re mindful of your personal brand, it starts giving you more structure and a strategy and a path to conduct yourself accordingly and kind of hit the goals that you have in the back of your mind,” she says.

Without a solidly constructed and defined personal brand, an employee has no strategy for getting from A to B – from “me now” to “who I want to become.” Their career goals, their career path – even their current career status – are all intangible and out of reach.

So now the employee is wondering – and, let’s be honest, you’re wondering, too – “Well, how do I build a personal brand?”

From Branding to Millennials and Back Again 

I’m tempted to call Orrell, who started her own marketing and advertising agency in San Francisco at the age of 25, precocious, but that would just be condescending. It’s far more accurate to say that she’s preternaturally enthusiastic about what she does, and this enthusiasm has translated into an encyclopedic knowledge of branding in all its forms.

But before Orrell was writing guidebooks for employees, she had to make the jump from corporate branding to leadership and talent.

“I got kind of burnt out, working for a lot of the big high-tech companies and such,” Orrell says of her days as a marketing/advertising consultant. The oversized offices, the vast ranks of employees – after 20+ years of running her own agency, it all got to be a little tiring for Orrell, but conversations with her clients would end up leading her on a new career path.

Orrell was researching Millennials as a consumer group so that she could help her clients reach them as customers. She found that her clients, trying to figure out the Millennial-as-consumer, were equally as baffled by the Millennial-as-employee. “I’d be in meetings with directors and V.P.s of marketing and they’d say things like, ‘Well, it’s great about them as consumers, but I’ve got a couple of them on my team, and they’re driving me nuts. I don’t know how to manage them or train them,’” Orrell says.

From there, Orrell watched the confusion and frustration grow. “Then it started turning into, ‘We don’t know how to recruit them well and retain them,’” she says.

So Orrell shifted her research away from Millennials-as-consumers and toward Millennials-as-employees. In 2008, she wrote her first book, Millennials Incorporated, which details how to recruit, manage, and retain Gen-Y employees. Following the book’s publication, Orrell stopped running her advertising and marketing agency and turned her attention to generational dynamics and leadership, with great results: she’s now widely known as the “generations relations and leadership expert.”

Orrell was conducting leadership workshops and seminars at various well-known companies when she noticed that one topic in particular resonated with everybody, regardless of their age: “I get a lot of 30-, 40-, and 50-year-olds that come up to me after [a workshop] and say, ‘Wow, I really wish people had been talking about personal branding in the career sense and the leadership sense back when I was younger, because it would have really helped my career path, and it really would have helped me make better decisions,’” she says.

Generation Y also responded well to workshops on personal branding. “I think, the sooner people can get their heads around their personal brand, the better,” Orrell says. “This topic plays really well to college students.”

Because so many people were fascinated by personal branding, Orrell found herself fielding the same question over and over again: “Can you recommend a good book on personal branding for employees?”

“I realized quickly that there weren’t a whole lot out there,” Orrell says. “Most of the books that were written on personal branding were for people that were self-employed or people that were aspiring to be [self-employed].”

Orrell decided to take matters into her own hands. “So I decided, alright, I’ve been doing the workshop for over three years. I’ve got over 20 years of experience in marketing and branding,” she says.

And thus was born Your Employee Brand is In Your Hands, Orrell’s fourth and most recent book.

The “Behavior Barometer”

The “employee brand” of Orrell’s book’s title is a sort of modified take on the traditional notion of a personal brand. “They’re both about career success,” Orrell explains. “It’s just that the motivation is different.”

Whereas personal branding is often about the self-employed worker, aiming to help them position themselves in the market and increase their revenue in the same way that a company might position a product, the employee brand is about helping employees stand out as trustworthy experts in their industries and their companies. “Your objective as an employee is to have more notoriety in your company – to have a higher profile,” Orrell explains. “Especially if they’re working for a large company, they’re trying to figure out, ‘How can I stand out when I have 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 employees at the same company?’”

Similarly, Orrell says, “Some employees aspire to more notoriety in their industry – they want to be known as an industry expert.”

But regardless of an employee’s aspirations, they’ll need personal branding to get there. “You still want to become your own publicist,” Orrell says. “You still want to work on your personal brand. But that’s your objective — it’s more career development.”

“The main thing about personal branding is that it basically also becomes what I refer to as your ‘behavior barometer,’” Orrell says. “Every single time someone has contact with you, one of two things happens: either your personal brand is strengthened, or your personal brand is weakened. [Your personal brand] is reflected by everything you say and don’t say, by everything you do and don’t do.”

Orrell says that many peple don’t realize that their employee brand is at play in every interaction they have – and, as a result, employees can end up doing themselves a lot more harm than good. Before you do or say anything, Orrell suggests you ask yourself, “Is this going to build up or break down my personal brand?” Because personal brands are not just about who we are now, but also about who we want to be in the future, so we always need to be working on strengthening our brands.

“It’s not only who you are now, but more importantly, it’s who you aspire to be,” Orrell explains. “It’s making the changes that you need to make so that you move towards that person you aspire to be.”

Employees need to take stock of their weaknesses and formulate strategies to address them, so that they can become the person they want to become. “A simple example of that is: do you have a temper? Are you really, really shy, and you really don’t want to be shy?” Orrell says. “What about those weaknesses and those challenging aspects of your personality are affecting your career, and how are you going to change them? Does it mean having to go to therapy? Does it meant having to get a life coach?”

It’s not enough to know who you are as an employee. It isn’t even enough to know who you want to be. You need to build the bridge between the two. You need, Orrell says, to take solid steps in the right direction.

The Three Benefits of Employee Branding

According to Orrell, strong employee branding brings three major benefits to the people who build it:

  • Clarity: A well-crafted employee brand gives an employee insight into their strengths and their weaknesses, into who they are and who they aspire to be.
  • Job Satisfaction and High Performance: When you know your personal brand and your professional values, you have direction in your career. This means you can answer difficult but necessary questions like, “Am I in the right job? Am I in the right role? Do I even like what I do?”

“All of those are very valid questions because knowing the answers helps to improve the odds of you being happy where you are, which ultimately impacts your overall job performance and job satisfaction,” Orrell says. “I know people that have turned down really good job offers because they … just don’t feel that there’s a match with [their] personal brand. That takes clarity. A lot of employees are willing to just jump because they’re going to get a 20 percent pay increase [or a better title]. A lot of times, we put blinders on and we jump for those things, versus really going, ‘Wow, is this a smart move for me? Am I going to be happy there?’”

  • Notoriety: When your personal brand is strong, people will have more consistent experiences with you. They’ll know what to expect, because you’re living your brand according to the same values every day. When people trust and respect your personal brand, you gain company and industry notoriety as someone who is an expert and who can be counted on.

Building a strong employee brand is not easy. It’s a process of constant vigilance, one that requires employees to be in touch with their thoughts, values, feelings, and beliefs at all times. Though it may take effort and energy, such disciplined awareness could pay off well – just ask Orrell.

Read more in Personal Branding

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.