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Dan the "Branding Man" Schawbel Teaches Us the Finer Points of Personal Branding

Fellow Riskologist,

What do people think of when they think of you? No, not what do you want them to think. What do they actually think?

This is something that goes through my mind a lot as I work—alongside all of you—to build Riskology.co into the most respected blog about risk-taking on the Internet.

  • Whenever I write something.
  • The people I choose to hang out with every day.
  • The decisions I make about how to go about my daily life.

All of these things are preceded by the question: How will this help me reach my  goal?

I’d like to think that, by asking myself that question over and over, I’ve built a strong personal brand. I’d like to think people associate me with smart risk-taking.

Of course, whether that’s true is for you to decide, not me. But each day, I do my best to steer your thoughts about me in that direction.

Why? Because I want all your money and to take over the universe.

Just kidding (sort of).

I do it because I think it’s important to spread the message that you can excel where others can’t by taking smarter, calculated risks. And I don’t want anything I say or do to hurt my ability to do that.

I don’t want to be an Anthony Weiner—a man with an important mission handicapped by his own stupid behavior.

I’m trying to build a personal brand. And maybe you should be, too.

At least, that’s what my guest in today’s interview—Dan Schawbel, personal branding expert—says. But don’t listen to him. He’s just trying to sell his book. Listen to me. Here’s what I think:

Maybe you should be, too.

Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success

promote-yourself-coverA Smart Riskologist knows it is, in fact, important what other people think of him. If you have big plans for your life, you’ll need the help of others along the way to make them happen.

And, if you want that, you have to create a personal brand for yourself that says, “I’m worthy of your trust.”

This isn’t something just for big businesses and entrepreneurs. It applies to all of us no matter where we work or what we do.

Everyone knows this at some level, but so many ignore it and make dumb and easily avoidable mistakes with huge consequences.

When I worked in the corporate world, I watched dozens of my co-workers and even superiors make “career limiting moves”—things that will cast doubt on your character and stop you from ever being promoted—every week. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The offenses ranged from a general lack of ambition to petty theft, sexual harassment, and worse.

Last week, a new book was released all about this topic and how to navigate the murky waters of self-promotion and how to build a personal brand the smart way.

The author, Dan Schawbel, has written about this topic for years, and he sent me a free copy (not paying for books is a benefit of having a strong personal brand). I can only assume he sent it because he wanted my incredibly valuable and life-affirming opinion of his work.

Well, good news for Dan. I liked it! In fact, I liked it enough to send him a bunch of questions tailored for Smart Riskologists that I demanded he answer during his book launch—the busiest week of his life.

As you know, that’s how I run my personal brand. I relentlessly grill people who send me free stuff. All for your benefit! You’re welcome.

And he came through! The following is my interrogation of the master of personal branding just for you, you handsome/gorgeous and genius Riskologist.

Important note: The contest for a free copy of Promote Yourself is now over! Congrats to Martin for winning with his question in the comments. If you have more personal branding questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them as I can.

Let the torture begin.

The Heated Interview with Dan Schawbel About Personal Branding

Okay, Mr. Schawbel, sir. You seem like a pretty smart guy, but can I trust you? How do I know you’re not peddling paper-based snake oil?

I’ve lived what’s written in this book with three promotions in three years and by creating the first ever social media position in a Fortune 200 company. I’ve also extensively researched the topic with 12 primary research projects and over one hundred one-on-one interviews for the book with executives, managers, and millennial workers. The book is a collection of my experiences and that of others, together with metrics to prove everything that is said.

What the hell is a personal brand? I thought that’s something big businesses spend millions of dollars on. I don’t have millions of dollars!

Personal branding is the process by which we identify our unique talents and communicate them to the right audience. We can use the same strategies companies use to build their brand for our own careers. Everyone has a brand but most haven’t defined it and put the effort in to actively manage it. You don’t need to spend money on growing your brand if you don’t want to because you can use social networks in order to reach the right hiring managers and influence the right people.

So, personal brands… you can have one if you work to build it. Got it. But, why do I care? Why do I want one?

You want one because it gives you meaning in your life—something to strive for—and because you need one if you want to stand out in this economy. By aligning your strengths and your talents to a market need, you can make money doing what you love, and who wouldn’t want to experience that? If you have a strong brand, then people will be able to find you and you’ll get opportunities over everyone else.

And I’ve heard you can get free stuff if you have a strong personal brand. I figure that’s why you sent me your book, right? I love free stuff. Thanks, Dan! Sorry, back on topic.

Personal branding feels like something important for entrepreneurs and people who run their own businesses. Why do you need one if you’re an employee? Aren’t you just a part of your company’s brand? Turn on, tune in, drop out, right?

In the research I did for the book with American Express, we found that 65% of managers think it’s important that an employee is a subject matter expert. An employee should strive to become the best at what they do so that others want to talk about them and they become invaluable to the company. If you focus your brand on a topic that’s important to your company and master it, then you will gain more visibility and become more in-demand.

Okay, here’s a good one: What are the top 3 mistakes most people make when building (or not building!) their personal brands?

  1. They over-promote themselves instead of giving value to their community.
  2. They try to be everything to everyone and end up being nothing to no one.
  3. They don’t evolve their brand as the market changes.

Time to get grilled, Dan. What’s the most embarrassing personal branding flub you’ve made? No lame answers! Give us something juicy!

The biggest one I made happened last week during my Reddit AMA. I’ve never done one before, and I didn’t do enough research beforehand. I was asked a question and I gave a neutral answer. As a result, the community turned on me and it wasn’t successful. I should have done my homework and answered every question.

That answer was… okay. I mean, it was good, but I was really hoping you’d tell us about drugs and hookers in a hotel room or something.

Let’s do an example. Say you’re Anthony Weiner (NYC mayoral candidate littered with sex scandals). You’re trying to pull out of a tailspin and save your career after a massive mistake. What do you do?

You be honest with everyone and take accountability for your actions. Then, you never make the same mistake again to prove that you learned your lesson.

So, you’re saying you shouldn’t just keep doing the same horrible stuff? I mean, that’s the lesson I got from watching Weiner’s campaign. I guess he should have listened to you.

Is career advancement really a numbers game? If so, how do I play it?

Life is a numbers game. I pitched 100 companies to partner with me on the research for this book, and only one did it. I wrote three book proposals and all the publishers rejected them except one. It really only takes one person to change your life and you can build so much from that. Even when it comes to dating, it’s a numbers game. You might date a hundred women before you meet the right one.

Now, where have I heard that before?

My boss is super lame, Dan. Sometimes I try to pitch him ideas, but he never wants anything to do with them. How can I get him to stop being such a wuss and take some chances on me?

What you need to do is to create a presentation with your ideas and outline why they can help your company along with numbers to prove their value. If you can present to your boss why your idea will work for your company and have done all the research on it, they will take you more seriously.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity: Can getting fired ever help your career? Like, maybe your departure is so epic you become famous on all the trashy day-time talk shows and end up with your own reality show on A&E. That’s not so far-fetched, is it?

If you get fired, it will hurt your career because when other companies you apply to do background checks, they will reveal it and it will hurt your chances. This is if you get fired for something really stupid like stealing. If you’re getting laid off because of a merger or acquisition it won’t hurt your job search because those are generally more accepted and common. I wouldn’t bet on getting a reality TV show from getting fired.

I just really want my own TV show, Dan.

In the book, you talk a lot about using your personal brand to actually start a new businesses inside your current job. My two questions about that are: “Huh?” and “How?”

If you want to stand out at work and have an entrepreneurial mindset, you should strive to become an intrapreneur – someone who acts like an entrepreneur but within a company. You can do this in two ways. First, you could find a way to improve a process, product or service. Second, you could find an opportunity that your company can take advantage of. Once you find the opportunity, make a presentation outlining [what it is and how your company is in a unique position to take advantage of it along with your plan for how to actually do it. Even if your company doesn’t go after the opportunity, you’ll be seen as a valuable team member.]

I added that last part in the brackets for you, Dan. That was weird how you just stopped talking like that. Are you okay? Should we call a doctor? Nah, let’s just move to the next question.

Everyone reading this interview thinks of themselves as risk-takers. How can we leverage that trait into greater leadership roles at work? And how can we make risk-taking a part of our personal brands so that everyone knows how badass we are?

It’s risky not to be risky in your career these days. Being a risk-taker will get you noticed and it’s better to go for it and ask for forgiveness later if you’re confident in what you’re trying to do. But if you take risks and they continually don’t pay off, it will become harder to get the resources you need to take more risks in the future. When you decide to take a risk, be extremely confident because if it works out, then the next risk is an easier sell and more people will want to invest in you.

Here’s something personal you touch on in the book: I’m horrible at giving criticism; I’m very blunt. How can I soften my edges so that everything I say doesn’t make people hate me? Do I even need to?

Great question! What you should do is to always lead with the positive. Tell them all the great things they are doing first before you criticize. This way, you’re showing them respect, acknowledging their work and are not seen as an evil critic. You need to criticize in a balanced way that shines light on the positive and negative.

You’ve written an incredible book Dan. Lots of people are going to buy it and learn a lot. I’m really impressed by all you’ve done. But, I think you could have done better on that answer. See, I’m learning!

You talk about starting a blog to build your personal brand and get name recognition. Is that really a great approach for most people? I mean, Dan, there are a lot of bad writers out there! Hell, I’m one of them. Do we need more?

You need to choose your medium: written, audio or video. Whatever medium you’re most comfortable with is the one you should focus on. For instance, I tried doing videos and audio podcasts and they just aren’t for me. I would much rather double down on my writing skills because that’s where I’m most comfortable and get the most traction.

Really important question, Dan: How do I know if I’m using social media to build a valuable network around my personal brand or if I’m just posting cat pictures, playing FarmVille, and deluding myself?

It’s really up to you what you post but it’s a reflection of who you are. If you want to be known as a cat expert, go for it but I’m not sure how big a market there is for that. Instead, focus on a professional topic and create content focused on it consistently over time. In time, you will become known as that expert and people will follow you.

There’s a huge market for cat experts, Dan. You’ve seen I Can Has Cheezburger and LOLcats, right? Cat’s are huge! The next Google, I’d bet. “Coogle.”

Oh, here’s a good one: What are managers looking for when they’re looking to promote someone? Shiny teeth? Is there more to it?

Managers are looking for soft skills over hard ones. Soft skills are intangible—they can’t be measured—but are very important in the workplace. The top three soft skills that managers are looking for when selecting whom to promote are the ability to prioritize work, having a positive attitude and teamwork skills.

Team on three! No, really, team was the third one. Okay, last question:

It’s been forever since I’ve gotten a raise, damn it! How do I ask for one without seeming greedy or unappreciative? And how is having a strong personal brand going to help me in this department?

Before you walk into your manager’s office and demand a raise, you need to be prepared. You should summarize everything you’ve done, how it’s benefited the company, and use numbers to quantify your impact. Then, when you go into your manager’s office, use all of this to persuade him. It will be much more effective.


So there you have it, folks. Some straight to the point advice from one of the world’s foremost experts on personal branding.

Dan’s book, Promote Yourself, is for sale now on Amazon in a fancy-shmancy hardcover for about $17. It’s really written for the millennial employee who’s trying to either make a name for herself and climb the corporate ladder, or build connections and trust that’ll allow her to launch her own business and leave the corporate world with the help of her company behind her.

Neither of those situations describe me, and I still got a lot from reading Dan’s book. Maybe you will, too.

Whatever you do, though, don’t forget to Brand It!™

Yours in risk-taking,
Founder, Riskology.co