You’re settling into your airplane seat as the flight attendant reviews the safety procedures—seat belts, emergency exits, then: “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling. Put on your own mask before helping others.”
Have you ever thought about how self-centered that instruction is? You probably haven’t because you realize that you’d be no good to anyone if you’re passed out in your seat due to lack of oxygen. Sometimes we need to help ourselves before we can help others.
As personal branding has become popular, many of us feel the need to own our image and strategically promote ourselves. At the same time, we wonder if it’s right to spend time advancing ourselves or if our time would be better spent helping others.
I recently read an article by fellow professor Jeffrey J. Williams in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Williams lamented that college faculty members are now expected to be promoters. They are asked to push their institutions, their departments, their courses, their books and themselves.
The notion that self-promotion can become narcissistic and overshadow other priorities is valid; egos easily grow out of control. However, Williams’ argument relies on the same dubious assumption others often make: Personal branding is solely self-serving.
Like the oxygen mask example, the best personal branding is not a decision between helping ourselves or helping others; it’s an opportunity to do both. By helping ourselves, we can better help others.
The idea of altruistic personal branding becomes more plausible when we recognize that good branding involves more than just communication. When we build our brand, we develop character and gain competencies. We are most valuable to others when we offer real reasons for trust and confidence.
Throughout my education and career, I’ve often benefitted from the strong personal brands of other people. I also believe the investment I’ve made in personal branding has helped at least a few others.
I met Dan, an alum of my college, many years ago when my instructor invited him to speak to our advertising class. Dan had an MBA and was a marketer for a well-known packaged food company. He gave me advice when I was considering an MBA and later lent me instant credibility with one of my MBA program’s leading professors, whom Dan had impressed on a consulting project. When I mentioned to the professor that I knew Dan, he enthusiastically replied, “Any friend of Dan is a friend of mine.” Years later, the professor remembered me and my connection to Dan when I asked him to recommend me to doctoral programs.
Now that I’m older and more experienced, I believe that others benefit from my personal brand. I do things for them, such as write letters of recommendation and serve as a reference for job applications. Just as I leveraged my mentors’ qualifications, credentials and connections, they use mine to help them advance in their careers. The time I’ve spent building my personal brand has increased my equity and paid dividends to others.
Interestingly, Dan is now the vice president of marketing for a large retail chain, and he calls me when he’s looking to hire for his marketing department. He probably never imagined that using his brand to help build mine would one day directly benefit him. That’s the nature of enlightened self-interest and airplane oxygen masks. Sometimes we can help others more by first helping ourselves.