Talking Into the Future: Your Personal Brand and Career Transitions

This post was sparked by one written by Hans De Leenheer (@HansDeLeenheer), 4 Tips for My Marketing Utopia. I actually disagree with many of the specifics of his post, but it contains one comment to which I’ve given quite a bit of thought in recent years as I’ve watched various colleagues move around:

“If you have to change jobs in a few weeks, will you still be able to back everything you said without apologising?”

There are people in the tech world who will passionately—vociferously—argue that the architecture of their current product is the only intelligent way of handling the Next Big Thing in IT. And then they move on to a competitor and suddenly everything they ever said in the past about their new employer or its approach apparently never happened.

Now, it’s not a bad thing to change your mind about something when confronted with a new idea or bit of information that would logically require you to reformulate your views. (Consistency, hobgoblins, etc.) But when this seems to happen overnight, coincident with a job change, it calls your sincerity and integrity into question. Not just with regard to what you said in the past, but also what you say now and going forward.

Such shifts can also cause problems for employers. The double-edged sword of having knowledgeable, high-profile people on “your side” is that they’re also the most likely to be recruited elsewhere, leaving the company with a library of videos and perhaps bylined writings that the company now has  to make some hard choices about. Maybe those assets happen to be among the best the company has at conveying a message and/or key technical points, or they already rank high in search results, effectively pulling viewers in and then on to other materials. There’s a material marketing loss to simply taking them down, but if the speaker’s departure has been big and/or sudden news, there’s a negative halo effect to keeping them. They either remind people of Big Name’s public vote of no confidence in the product/company, or else of the glibness with which Big Name will apparently espouse any position, which can undermine the credibility of the points they may have made in the assets in question.

Sometimes a job change is in part (there are always several factors) the result of a rethinking of a position on a key topic or philosophy—an effort at realigning oneself with one’s work—but it generally comes after some period of time spent trying to find a place for the individual’s new views or interests within their previous employer.

I really like what Chuck Hollis (@chuckhollis) had to say in Geek Whisperers Podcast #4 about the appropriate degree of overlap between personal and professional brands—and he seems to have managed his own transition between EMC and VMware very gracefully. In fact, part of what made that transition seamless was the breadth of topics he regularly discussed within his EMC-based blog and his clear interest in broad industry trends. The fact that he didn’t feel a need to always tie his analysis of such trends back to an EMC product or the EMC brand was partly what made his blogs interesting reads, but it also made it easier for him to move on naturally, without apparent violation of his previous commentary. (He also didn’t move very far.)

For myself, I try to be clear about the philosophical foundation of what I espouse. This philosophy is something that has become progressively clearer to me over the years, and I continue to refine and elaborate on it as I read and write about technology. There’s a part of me that’s always observing myself: the kinds of things I’m drawn to and what I actively respond to—positively and negatively—and analyzing why. This internal feedback loop informs even my most corporate activities. For example, if I’m writing about a particular product feature I think is interesting or needs some explanation to fully appreciate, I try to ground that explanation within the context of broader architectural principles I think are important and are likely to be enduring.

Product and corporate boosterism may be the core of my job as a product marketer, but as a very systems-minded person, it’s impossible for me to think of a single product or even a company in isolation. In my mind I’m always envisioning how those things play within a larger context. For me, carrying out my duties as a marketer within my own employer-agnostic intellectual framework provides a sense of rootedness on which the shifting winds of corporate life have limited effect.

TL;DR

Many intelligent, high-achieving types are always anxious to move up, to acquire more responsibility, a more impressive title, more money—and the nature of the modern corporate world is such that more often than not, one has to move on to another employer to do this. (Mike Bushong has written a very tidy explanation for this here.)

But a career is a decades-long marathon, not a sprint. An act that seems to position you well in the organization you happen to be living in right now will last a lot longer than the moment and environment in which you perform it. The collective memory of an industry can be surprisingly long. The tech industry, in particular, is heavily peopled with idealists who dream of building an ever-brighter, -cleaner and more efficient future. And in the age of Google, nothing is ever forgotten. And so more than ever, long-term success and career longevity are dependent on your personal credibility—not just your domain expertise—and on others’ belief that you are motivated at least in part by contributing to something larger than yourself.

What you say or do today is what you’ll be judged on five years from now. Is that what you want?

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2 comments on “Talking Into the Future: Your Personal Brand and Career Transitions

  1. Pingback: Talking Into the Future: Your Personal Brand and Career Transitions

  2. For me this is less an issue of career development and more one of personal integrity. If there isn’t a broad intersection between your personal beliefs and the views of your employer, then you should probably be looking elsewhere, and you certainly shouldn’t be trying to represent your employer in the media (social or otherwise). Denigrating the competition, and restating content that can be found on the corporate website just increases the noise to signal ratio (which is why I stopped listening the Mr Hollis years ago). To be sure, if you are employed as a spokesperson, then you owe it to your employers to portray their products and point of view in positive ways that align with the current market message objectives, but an enlightened employer allows a LOT of leeway there.

    In the end, provided your first priority is on improving the outcomes for whoever your audience is, then there shouldn’t be a problem with changing the details about how those are achieved when you move to another company. There is no single approach that suits all situations, which is why I like competition and diversity.

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