In recent times we have witnessed the demise of one of the world’s truly big personal brands in Lance Armstrong.
Interestingly, it became official in a very public chat with an even bigger personal brand, Oprah Winfrey. There has been much written and spoken about this very sorry story, but for us it represents a timely reminder of the fundamental dimensions that shape all of our personal brands. Certainly his tainted legacy of lying, cheating, doping and bullying to secure a victory is at the extreme end, but there are wider lessons to be learnt.
Our day job is in the world of brands, whether it be product, service, organisational or personal brands. What we so often find is that while there may be a level of consciousness around the need to strategically manage product and organisational brands, the average punter seems less aware of the need to proactively manage their personal brand. We all seem to get it when it comes to sports people and the world of celebrities, but in our own careers we are inclined to adopt a far more laissez-faire approach.
However, when working with individuals on their personal brand we encourage them to explore what they stand for on a number of fronts. Two dimensions that are fundamental, relate to their character and their competencies or talents. Stephen Covey (Jnr) has written a great book called the ‘Speed of Trust’ that elaborates on these and other factors that shape the level of trust we engender. An interesting read.
In a consulting sense we have to declare that typically with individuals, our primary focus is to explore the competencies and talents that they have or need to develop to differentiate them in their chosen fields. To us to be of good character is non-negotiable. It is a constant. Competencies on the other hand are situational and relate to the context in which someone is operating.
What Lance Armstrong has demonstrated to the world is that you may seemingly have an abundance of talents, but if your character is found be of a dubious nature – and clearly cheating puts you in that camp – then your personal brand is going to suffer significantly.
What is most disturbing about Armstrong’s case is the way he rationalised his cheating. In the interview with Oprah Winfrey, he explained how he had looked up the definition of ‘cheat’ and found that to cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe which you know that they don’t have, or of which they are unaware. In Armstrong’s mind, he was not cheating. He viewed it as simply leveling the playing field. In other words, drugs were the norm. It was simply a matter of winning at all costs. Sadly it would seem that the deeds of Lance Armstrong are about to be superseded by the wider sports community in Australia. The current investigation by the Australian Crime Commission into sport is a sad reflection of the scale of the insidious need to win at all costs. How untimely is Essendon Football Club’s motivational slogan for the 2013 season: ‘Whatever It Takes’.
Such a distorted sense of competition and therefore character is not only the preserve of sport. We increasingly see it playing out in business and Government. In fact as specialists in brands, we often have conversations with each other about how hard it is to build strong positive personal brands amongst politicians because there is such a win-at-all-costs mindset at play. In the political world, personal brands have to be subservient to the party brand, and when the party is all about winning, true character can come a distant second.
Likewise consider business. Should individuals apply the same interpretation to cheating that Lance Armstrong applied when they are attempting to win contracts in some overseas countries? Is bribery OK when seemingly all your competitors are making illegal payments, justified on the basis of cultural difference? To do so would be akin to saying that ethics is relative to location. Presumably then do we rationalise human rights as being something determined on a location-by-location basis? Of course not, it would be absurd. As is the case in believing that we should always win regardless of the cost, evident in the global bribery campaign of Reserve Bank company Securency, which according to police evidence, extended to more than a dozen countries. Likewise, the actions of former editors to News of the World who are facing phone tapping charges, all in the name of ‘winning a story’.
If you are sitting back reading this and feeling very comfortable about your own character, then let’s turn our attention to the other dimension of personal brand. Where do your competencies and talents reside? What makes you distinctive and valuable in your chosen field? What are you doing to evolve those competencies to stay relevant? What is your personal brand equity plan?
Business and marketing writer Seth Godin says that “if you’re the average person out there doing average work, there’s going to be someone else out there doing the exact same thing as you, but cheaper.” For individuals shaping their careers the world has become far more competitive, globally connected and demanding of true value. Hence there is a need to differentiate one’s self in ways that are authentic and compelling.
Personal branding requires you to have a heightened sense of consciousness about the journey you are on and develop a greater level of alignment between purpose and passion. It is about identifying the sweet spot where you thrive.
For most people their character test will be very different to the one that confronted Lance Armstrong. It will not be a major ethical dilemma. More likely, it will be simply a question of whether they are being true to themselves.
Peter Singline and David Ansett are co-founders and directors of Truly Deeply, a Melbourne based brand strategy and design consultancy.