Your Where Am I Going Brand Story

Over the last few weeks we have looked into the world of personal brand stories: creating your brand story & your who am I brand story

Today in the last of the personal brand story series we are going to look at how ‘Where Am I Going’ can play such a strong role in building your signature story. Professional signature stories can help you create, refine and articulate a career path, with a set of goals and strategic priorities. And these stories can provide both short and long-term guidance. Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook is one that has built an enormous career and an endearing personal brand outside of the organisations that she has worked for. Her pioneering work on ‘Leaning in’ and ‘Option B’ will resonate well past her last pay slip with Facebook.

My set of signature stories helped guide my mentoring, teaching and writing – and eventually, my decision to form a brand consultancy. It all stemmed from my choosing to help organisations build their brand assets. The result has been that my own professional assets have increased – particularly the blogs and articles, with the concepts and frameworks contained. Much of my past work on adhoc projects would become a foundation for my branding work and a synergistic source of differentiation.

Although general advice can be helpful, detailed plans can be a crucial part of a professional signature story. Where are you going and why? Who will join you on the journey? What is your destination and how will you get there? What are the landmarks along the way? If your story involves a career change, the details could include a new job profile, an M.B.A program (or equivalent) and interim goals. Any career story that offers detail and vision will evolve as new opportunities and obstacles arise. But without a story, a career may wander aimlessly or, more likely, just stagnate.

A professional signature story that charts a career vision allows others to understand your goals, your strategy for reaching them, your will to succeed and the assets you bring. By knowing the story, your work colleagues can better decide to follow you. Your peers can decide to join you. And those above you can decide whether to enable your vision to succeed. That was true for Zhang Ruimin, whose signature story provided a direction for him, his firm and many fellow employees who adapted his story for their own.

Zhang was promoted in 1984 to lead a then struggling Chinese refrigerator manufacturer that would later be renamed Haier. After a customer brought in a faulty refrigerator, Zhang and the customer went through his entire inventory of 400 refrigerators looking for a replacement – only to find that nearly 20% were defective. A special moment had arrived: Zhang promptly had the 76 dud refrigerators lined up on the factory floor, gave employees sledgehammers and ordered the machines destroyed. A dramatic decision indeed.

Zhang’s signature story led to a change in the film’s culture and strategy, with an ongoing commitment to quality that affected product development, operations, manufacturing and the evaluation of employees. The story would also change the way the brand was perceived by customers and dealers – as one that could deliver world-class quality under the leadership of a charismatic and innovative CEO. Hair would become a major Chinese success story with a global footprint, and Zhang would become a national hero and renowned management innovator. His story remains a spiritual cornerstone of his leadership journey.

A crucial communication task for any organizational leader is to motivate others – most notably one’s employees, but sometimes customers, investors, suppliers and the public. To do so, a leader needs to build trust, earn credibility and create a connection with his or her audience, particularly when that audience is employees. Without that relationship, the leader wont be able to make the sale. The challenge is greater when a person s new to the organization or has lost credibility for some reason.

To develop trust, credibility and a connection, leaders first need to introduce themselves. And facts alone do not work. You can’t say it. You ned to show it. You need to prove it.

A leader who truly embraces the element of trust is Howard Schultz.

Schultz took over Starbucks in 1987, when the chain had only a few stores. From the start, his core values included respect for all employees and a belief in a quality workplace. He wanted employees to find meaning in their working lives, whether they were baristas or members of the logistics team getting fresh coffee beans to the stores. The first version of its mission statement had six principles – the first being to “provide a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity.” Since then, the words have changed but not the sentiment. In part because of his commitment, Starbucks decided early on to offer health coverage and stock benefits to all employees, even part-timers.

A story about his father explains the depth of Schultz’s commitment to treating employees with dignity. As a youngster, Howard watched his father get beaten down by the system even though he worked hard, sometimes with two jobs. He had to quit school to go to work, then would suffer from malaria contracted as a soldier in World War 2. He never found a job with much of a future or even one that offered respect and meaning. In 1961, he would suffer a foot injury that meant extra costs with no health insurance and no income. Howard resolved that if he was ever able to make a difference, he would not leave others behind.

Signature stories help and define authentic leadership. Two scholars did an exhaustive review of the literature around such leadership and concluded that two of its characteristics were clarity about self knowledge (knowing yourself as you really are) and about self-concept (how you would describe yourself to others). Both are needed. They suggest that a good way to improve your ability to be an authentic leader is o introspectively create and clarify life stories, narratives about self-relevant events across time and their relationship to one another. In other words, identify and articulate your signature stories. Research suggests that the opinions and actions of one’s followers are based on a judgment of authenticity. And that judgment, in turn, is based on the believability of the leader’s signature stories and whether the stories match the leader’s actions.

Marc Benioff is a leader who oozes authenticity.

A retreat in India led the CEO of to believe that a social purpose could be built into a business. That belief resulted in Salesforce’s 1-1-1 programs, whereby 1% of the firm’s output, 1% of equity and 1% of employee’s time are devoted to social programs. The story has provided inspiration and guidance to Benioff in his leadership role – not only of his firm but also of the high-tech community.

A story about correcting a past misstep, for example, can help show your management style or emphasize a part of the culture that is particularly important to you. It may also offer a way to introduce some self-deprecating humor. The story will show that that you recognize mistakes, learn from them and aren’t deadly serious about everything. That makes people want to listen. By contrast, consider a leader who lectures with an efficient PowerPoint presentation about culture or strategy – but offers only concepts and facts, with nothing personal. The response would likely be boredom, skepticism (“I’ve heard that before”) and, ultimately, a lack of buy in – or maybe even disrespect.

Even though Steve Jobs is an icon, the moment we all had the most empathy with him was during his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford that would go viral.

Amongst several career-advice stories, Jobs told one of dropping out of college early because it was costing the life savings of his parents, who had adopted him only after promising his birth mother that he would get a college education. As a result, he stopped taking required courses and started sitting in on interesting ones while living an extremely austere life, which included sleeping on the floor in friend’s rooms. One course, on calligraphy, seemed frivolous but would later influence fonts and visuals for the Mac computer and, ultimately, for much of the computer interface software we know today. The point of the story: Study broadly, because you can’t predict what will become useful. Only later will you connect the dots.

Another story involves his departure from and ultimate return to Apple, the firm he co-founded in 1976. Pushed out of his operational role in 1985, he would soon leave the firm. He felt devastated and considered leaving Silicon Valley. But his love and passion for innovation in computer industry made him start over: He founded NEXT, a computer company with an agile operating system friendly to software developers. In 1996, Apple bought NEXT in part for the operating system and in part to get Jobs to come back. So, almost a dozen years after he first left, Jobs returned to restore Apple to its innovative ways. The point? Follow your heart and do what you love. If you don’t find the path at first, keep looking. Don’t settle.

Stories seldom happen by themselves. They require effort. Review your career, noting your achievements as well as other moments that led to a surge of confidence, a sense of pride or joy, or a change in career direction. Create a story bank – an organized compilation of these stories. Then review, revise and reprioritize them periodically. When new stories surface, add them to the bank.

Use these stories to learn about yourself (Who am I?), the meaning in your professional life (What is my higher purpose?) your career trajectory (Where am I going?) and your credibility (How can it be enhanced?). Then use them to address basic professional issues that are affecting your job performance and career. Stories should become the springboard to reflection on the direction of your professional life.

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