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These are stories about things that don’t have to happen - things that can be avoided. There is nothing in human experience that makes them unavoidable. These are stories about the great divide between knowing and doing - and about how a trusted mentor can help you remake your future.
One area of work for my mentoring engagements is the ‘branding’ of an individual or company. In many ways, the work is similar for each. Many of the ‘sins’ that individuals commit when tending their ‘brand’ are similar to the ones company’s engage in.
I am not much of a fan of elevator speeches - those peripatetic attempts at speed branding that seem to bubble up all over networking events. Over the years I have come to believe that people do business with others that they know, like and trust. The ‘wham, bam, thank you mam’ that is the elevator speech does not seem to me to contribute much to developing such relationships. In fact, I suspect that it makes them much more difficult to develop.
The Twenty Second Life: There are two major problems with reducing your branding efforts to the twenty-second time limit that most advocates of elevator speeches advance. The first is that inanity is difficult to keep out of the presentation. This is how it might sound:
“Hi, My name is irrelevant and I have been on this earth for the better part of four decades. My life can be reduced to this twenty-second monologue. Now you keep quiet for that brief time while I pass gas.”
The question here is “why would a twenty-second spiel get you anything but an irritated listener? ... or, maybe, just someone patiently waiting for their twenty seconds of fame.
Building a relationship takes time and mutual consideration. You don’t run to the end of the process or overload the person across from you with ‘polished posturing’ that is going nowhere given that you have just met. You are branding yourself as someone who doesn’t care much for the details - either of your life or theirs - and is simply an opportunist looking for an advantage.
Opportunism Rampant: There are two extremes of this behavior. The first is ‘I want’. The strategy focuses on the needs of the person performing. The gist of the performance is establishing ‘value’ which will attract enough attention to turn a first encounter into a business relationship. In fishing, we call it baiting the hook. It probably never occurs to the person doing the baiting how the ‘fish’ feels about the process.
The second variation of opportunism begins with a question - ‘what do you do?’ The strategy is to get the other person thinking that there is really an interest in the answer. But it quickly becomes apparent that the question is only designed to ‘size up’ the potential for self-benefit.
The point here is that certain behaviors contribute to a negative branding - either for you as a person or for a company. Both extremes constitute a ‘transactional’ approach to relationships. The underlying questions is “What good are you to me?” The demand is that the answer come quickly.
The reason that I have started with examples of people’s behavior is that companies are represented by them and often take on the characteristics of their representatives. Here is another one that I see a lot.
I Am Whatever You Need: Individuals describe themselves as ‘generalists’ - companies put themselves forth as being capable of a wide range of services - the impact is the same. Most people are looking for specialists - whether in a person or company. They are generally put off by pretensions that clearly overstep the capabilities of the person before them. The roots of this behavior is probably insecurity - the effect is confusing and negative branding.
Put yourself in the position of the listener for a minute. Think of how it feels to them. Imagine that you are talking to a person who is five feet tall - who is telling you what a great professional basketball player they are. You would metaphorically scratch your head and wonder ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ All you really wanted to do was get to know this person a bit - a first meeting should let you know that they are human and have something about them that is worth getting to know. Instead, the person advances an avatar - a mask - and insists that you take it seriously - as them. What is wrong with this picture?
Companies do the same thing. I have friends who are employed by very large companies and who are charged with finding smaller companies to serve as team members. The search is a common one in government contracting - particularly in the Washington area. Their frustration is that companies insist in overselling their capabilities and value propositions. The negative branding begins when a CEO or business development person clearly overstates with the even clearer expectation that the person ‘buy’ what is being sold. The seem to think that overselling will help them ‘close the deal’ That is far from the case.
Alternatives: So what is the way out of this tendency to negatively brand? As I said at the beginning, it is not inevitable that these things happen - they can be avoided.
It’s as easy as saying what is reliably true and appropriate given the circumstances. But that is seldom as easily done as said. Breaking habits that have set in over the years can be terribly difficult - and more so when a person’s or company’s self-image is involved. And one of the most corrosive habits is failing to understand the situation as you face it. Here is a five-step approach that I have found to help:
1. Come to terms with the need to change: nothing is possible until you make that first step
2. Seek out and engage a mentor/coach: pick the most experienced and well connected one you can find and engage them to help you change
3. Commit to the process: don’t hide your commitment - step out in public and declare it - ask your friends and team members for support
4. Stay with it: changes take time to settle in as new habits - a good rule is that it takes six weeks to two months to make it stick
5. Hold yourself accountable: deciding to change is not changing - lots of people make decisions that they never follow up on - let your coach call you out when you falter and then redouble your efforts
Avoid the tendency to try to do it by yourself. Remember, you got where you are and how you are via that road. Try another path - find a mentor you can trust and make the journey together. Remember the old saw, ‘he who has himself for a lawyer, has a fool for a client’.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,