Personal And Company Brands — The Story Not Told Of Empowered Employees

A week ago, my friend Michael Rubin alerted me to a CNNMoney.com/Fortune article that rubbed him the wrong way. I and many others who cover social media had the same reaction to “Building your brand (and keeping your job).” Not only did the article seem unfair to Scott Monty, a marketing leader who has been widely recognized for the good work he’s done at Ford Motor Co., but the author focuses a great deal of criticism on the actions of employees whose social media activities ran afoul of their employers rather than considering how those employers might have benefited from a different approach and attitude. 

At the core of the article is an accurate and interesting conflict, which Jerry Wilson of Coca-Cola describes well: "The personal branding process can create stress within a corporation. People will see if you are merely trying to advance your own career, as opposed to contributing to the success of the organization." This conflict is one that will evolve in the years to come as social media continues to change the way we communicate, form relationships, foster corporate culture and manage our careers. But rather than explore this conflict in any interesting way, the article dumps on social media-savvy employees.

The examples presented include:

  • A Home Depot employee who secured the approval of his boss to use Twitter to organize a town hall where customers could come in and offer feedback to management. Within days, that same boss told the employee that his Internet use was being investigated and he was put on a paid leave of absence. The employee was soon terminated for inappropriate use of work time. The lesson according to Fortune? “Don’t be overeager.”
     
  • A Microsoft employee who created a brand presence that permitted him to network and gain an understanding of the Microsoft perception among “business gurus.” But when he shared those impressions inside Microsoft, “no one was listening . . . they thought I was namedropping." Now, this employee filters himself, choosing “discretion over self-promotion.” Fortune’s recommendation: “Branding, not bragging.”
     
  • A Synopsys employee who responded to a company inquiry for bloggers, attended a company-offered blogging class and worked on his Synopsis blog “often in his off-hours.” He continued this company-sponsored effort, even after hearing that “executives were divided on blogging's ultimate value” and that a VP said he "was wasting time blogging." He was laid off and the employee noted, "There was no question that my association with the blog contributed to my being laid off." Fortune tells employees, “Be sensitive to changing priorities.”

I suppose the advice to employees isn’t incorrect, but where is the advice to employers? Does anyone else get uncomfortable with the companies’ reported actions in those three examples? My feelings about this article came into focus when I read a blog post on the Next Level Blog entitled, “Seven Simple Rules to Create a Fear Based Culture.” Scott Eblin suggests, “a good way to learn leadership is to do the opposite of what really crappy leaders do.”  Among the habits of "crappy" leaders are:

  • Kill the messenger,
  • Ignore the people on the front line, and
  • Keep them guessing.

Sound familiar? The examples from the Fortune article seem to be great examples of Eblin’s fear-based culture. 

Now, I’m sure there’s much more to these stories than is captured in the Fortune article (as is implied when Synopsys notes it has a dozen currently employed bloggers and Home Depot says it isn’t aware of anyone terminated for conducting social media on behalf of the company). In fact, I have worked with two of these companies and found them to have open, candid and collaborative cultures. 

My gripe has less to do with the companies cited than with the conclusions drawn by Fortune. When faced with some (seemingly) egregious examples of harmful corporate culture and actions, the author of the article chose to caution employees rather than employers. Isn’t the bigger lesson not that employees need to be smart and cautious but that employers need to consider if and how their corporate culture translates in an age of increased transparency and sharing? Wouldn’t companies be better off with employees who ask to sponsor town halls to hear the voice of their customer? Or employees who can provide a flow of information about influencer attitudes? Or eager employees who step forward and volunteer for company-sponsored social efforts?

The article gives good advice to personal branders (“Prove your worth” and “Get credit — when it’s due”) but where is the good advice for employers? Fortune missed an opportunity to provide the more interesting and important angle on this story.

Those intrigued by this topic will want to watch for the release of Empowered, the sequel to Groundswell.  The book, written by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, is due out September 14 and tells how to “unleash your employees, energize your customers, and transform your business.” Here’s a quick quote from the book: Serving the empowered customer “is much harder than it sounds. It means your staff are going to be coming up with solutions on their own. The ideas don’t come from management; management’s new job is to support and empower employees.” There’s more wisdom for business contained in that brief passage than in the entire Fortune article!

Comments

Personal And Company Brands

Your article really struck a cord with me. I have seen many such example myself. I understand employes who will not participate to social media. Not because they have nothing to contribute but fear of retaliation, fear of being flagged as 'that guy' result in employe being fearfull and everybody looses.

Even I who want to comment on articles such as this one took the time to hide my identity because I know that at some point my name will be searched through the net on a regular basis and I fear what some may think of any comment I may leave and since what you say on the net is there forever...

Is this paranoia? I don't think so, I personnaly know some HR dept who have people who do exactly that on a regular basis (troll the net searching for employees name). I know a few others who will make such a search before hiring someone.

In doubt, I simply will never comment using my real identity.

Very interesting viewpoint.

Very interesting viewpoint. I've found the companies we work with are open to employee involvement but want to track each employee's "moves" when networking on behalf of the business. That being said, many other large corporations are still unsure of a new media strategy.

I feel one of the benefits of a software partner for SMMS or SCRM is the tracking of users. If an employer doesn't have a minimum online policy in place they are asking for trouble these days. A software takes it to the next level of human resources and employee record keeping.

Its sad to caution employees on their involvement, employers trust employees everyday to answer the phone, coordinate multiple levels of services with customers so why not represent the company on social media if it's an approved site or campaign?

@ericamcclenny
Director of Enterprise Engagement
Expion

Employee record keeping

Erica,

Good point on the need for record-keeping. Especially in regulated industries, companies need to track and manage their employees' social interaction. Still, you said it well: "employers trust employees everyday to answer the phone, coordinate multiple levels of services with customers so why not represent the company on social media if it's an approved site or campaign?"

Augie, above and beyond

Augie, above and beyond tracking activity is the remove of content. What if an employee says something that is incorrect or causes a legal issue down the road? Is the employer keeping a database of that employee's interactions even after they are deleted or fallen off the stream of conversation?

The manual collection of posts, comments or engagement across multiple sites is almost impossible to track. Think of software use as another layer added into an employee's file.

A rather sad comment

I understand the motivation that causes WantsToKeepPrivate to want to keep private, but I think it's sad and is indicative of a corporate culture that will lose rather than win in the age of social media. Obviously, every employee has to do the right thing for their career, but smart companies will encourage more social behaviors rather than punish them.

Thanks for the sober reminder, WantsToKeepPrivate!

What About Forrester Itself?

The question this leaves me with is in regard to Forrester's own conflicts between personal branding and corporate responsibility. Over the last few years several of your own analysts have leveraged their positions with your organization to build their personal brand, then used this stature as a launching pad for their own efforts. This has resulted in much stricter policies within Forrester, I'm told.

I'm not criticizing either them or you, but I do honestly want to know how Forrester is specifically dealing with this issue. I think it's imperative for you all to be as transparent as possible on this issue when pointing the finger at other companies.

Again, I'm not accusing you of hiding anything. I just feel that the subject you are broaching would be better aided by inclusion of your own struggles.

Thanks for raising this topic.

Bob Knorpp
Host of The BeanCast
Posts every Monday @ http://beancast.us

Great question, Bob!

Bob,

I wondered how long it might take before a commenter asked about Forrester and personal branding. Thanks for wading into an interesting issue!

There is no doubt that personal and corporate brands CAN conflict, and we'd all agree employees need to understand the communication and social media limitations of their companies and industries. And as you note, some people have perceived some conflicts between personal brands and the Forrester brand. But, in my experience, I have not seen that sort of conflict.

It's true that Forrester asked analysts to give up their personal professional blogs (as distinct from their personal personal blogs) and to begin blogging within Forrester's own blogging platform. Some saw that as a conflict between Forrester and analysts' personal brands and I guess to some extent it was, but as with all such questions it comes down to balance. Forrester wanted analysts' content and thought leadership contained in one place where clients could find, read and aggregate it. I found that to be a reasonable request on Forrester's part, even though I was a bit sad to give up my personal blog at ExperienceTheBlog.com.

But in return, my personal brand has also gotten a big boost from Forrester. On a weekly basis I get to meet great marketing and social media leaders like @AaronStrout, @stefanomaggi and @stevefurman (all last week!) I also get interviewed and published in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and NPR. And, my reports and blog posts are read by marketing leaders at Fortune 500 companies.

So, I've given up a little and gained a little to be a part of Forrester. And in return, Forrester has gained too. But the important question is whether Forrester SUPPORTS the social media efforts of employees, and in this case they truly do. They want people blogging and tweeting, and Forrester has launched communities for clients, employees and others to connect. I don't feel as if my social media behaviors have been limited in any way (other than the URL at which I blog.)

Thanks for the interesting dialog, Bob.

Follow-up Re: Forrester Policy

I find this fascinating. It's so interesting to look at the Forrester case as a self-contained experiment on the problem as a whole, because both the benefits and liabilities are so obviously exposed within your organization.

So much of the Forrester model is built on having rock star analysts. Sure, there's the reputation of the company to uphold, but it's the personalities and specific research of the individual analysts' that drive the calls and dollars. You're a bit like a professional sports team -- everyone is out to win as a team, but the reputation of specific players drive ticket sales. And just like with sports teams, ultimately those players know their value and leverage the team as a launching pad for their own endorsement deals, contract negotiations and even team moves.

The question is, is such a model a double edged sword that is dangerous but necessary in today's business, or is encouraging such activity always beneficial to the company despite the risk of investing in talent who may ultimately leave for a competitor?

David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, had a film called True Stories in the early 90's that contains a fairly prophetic stance on this topic. In the scene, Earl Culver, played by Spaulding Gray, delivers this speech:

"Most middle-class people have worked for large corporations like Vericorp or for the government itself. But now, all that's started to change. Scientists and engineers are moving off from those larger corporations, like Vericorp. And they're beginning to start their own businesses, marketing new inventions...But It all spins back to the middle...that's why we have to keep these guys in Virgil. Even though they do leave Vericorp.

"For the time being it's create confusion and chaos. They don't work for money anymore, but to earn a place in heaven, which was a big motivating factor once upon a time, believe you and me. They are working and inventing because they like it! Economics has become a spiritual thing. I must admit it frightens me a little bit. They don't seem to see the difference between working and not working. It has all become a part of one's life. Linda! Larry! There's no concept of weekends anymore!"

Obviously this is over the top, but the core of the speech completely and accurately predicted the entire dot-com boom. But more importantly, it predicted how the big companies just needed to let the innovation happen, then either learn from the innovations or buy the best of those start-ups and absorb them back into the fold. (Not withstanding a few notable companies like Google that became giants themselves.)

I think this model is just as relevant today when applied to the personal branding question. There are obviously risks to giving employees public, social platforms of expression. After all, in these instances we are no longer just investing in what an employee can do for the organization, but investing in their own stature as an individual. We also must be concerned that they may indeed use such platforms for self-advancement or transfer this fame to their personal efforts. But we also have to accept that by not allowing individuals to shine within an organization, we lose the benefit of their inventiveness. And by burning bridges with them when they open a personal blog or decide to leave, we lose the opportunity to possibly re-absorb them into the organization later as an even more valuable asset.

I fully believe that most of the concerns over employees advancing their personal brand in tandem with the corporate brand they are tasked to promote is simply a product of short-sighted thinking. If we're truly afraid of our own brilliant employees jumping ship, then we should be doing more to either hire more loyal people or create additional reasons for them to stay. Ultimately that would be a better use of resources than trying to suppress the flood of personal expression our workers are dying to give us.

That's my opinion, at least. Can I charge you for a consult. ;)

If you want to watch the True Stores scene I mentioned, here's the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXS5bJlv5S4&feature=related

Bob Knorpp
Host of The BeanCast
Posts every Monday @ http://beancast.us

"More loyal people"?

I found this comment fascinating: "If we're truly afraid of our own brilliant employees jumping ship, then we should be doing more to either hire more loyal people or create additional reasons for them to stay."

Do you believe that people are inately more or less loyal? Or do you think loyalty is a condition that is constantly earned on the part of two parties? I tend to think the latter, which means companies should be more afraid of brilliant people jumping ship because the company doesn't encourage and support then then they are of brilliant people who have personal brands.

I'm reminded of David Ogilvy's remark, "If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants."

Thanks for the dialog!

Agreed

I think you are correct, of course. The idea that you can hire more loyal people is a red herring. The only real choice is to focus efforts on creating a better partnership with employees as an alternative to trying to suppress their personal ambitions. Companies are both reducing effectiveness and losing far too many good employees playing the suppression game.

All the best, Augie. We'll have to get you on the show some time...for a little personal branding time. ;)

Bob Knorpp
Host of The BeanCast
Posts every Monday @ http://beancast.us

My personal brand

What? Spend time elevating my personal brand? I'd never do that! :)

Sucking up 1.0

Fine post Augie. Lots of sucking up there by Fortune - good old Enterprise 1.0

Personal and company will clash in E2.0, it's what I call the fine line between adopt and adapt: http://www.martijnlinssen.com/2010/07/generations-social-and-enterprise-...

I fully agree with the quote from Empowered: I describe Social as a bit of a Trojan Horse that will leave the enterprise in ruins: http://www.martijnlinssen.com/2010/08/social-achilles-and-troj-enterpris...

I wonder when the likes of Fortune will turn around and start sucking up the employees - and will come up with a snarky post ;-) at that time, pointing back to yours. Not everything will change...

Made me laugh, Martin

Martin,

As always, it is great to hear your perspective!

I'm not sure social media will "leave the enterprise in ruins," but I certainly agree big changes are afoot. The Web wasn't just a medium into which we plugged old traditional communication strategies. The Web changed everything and social will do the same. You and I share a similar vision.

I don't want to throw Fortune under the bus too much--this was, after all, just one article. But I can't disagree with your feeling that Fortune might've written a very critical assessment of examples of stale corporate culture rather than a cautionary tale for employees. If I were a hiring manager in a socially-hip company, I'd snap up the people referenced in that article!

Unfairness is in corporate DNA

As someone who once got fired because a superior felt threatened by my proficiency in an area he didn't understand, I can attest to the fact that it's not just Social Media that gets employees in trouble. No shortage of stories like this. Whether it's a (bad) strategic decision to create a culture of fear, or just managerial incompetence, any time an insecure superior's power is undermined there will be trouble. But like nothing before, Social Media increases vulnerability of the manager and the power of the employee... never a good combination in these types of environments.

Good or bad?

Tom,

Thanks for the comment. I agree that social media can shift the balance of pwoer between employee and boss (just like it can between brand and consumer). But in the end, while we'll need a period of adjustment to understand the changes social media is bringing to the enterprise, don't you think this will all end up being a good thing rather than a bad?

You say Fortune gave good

You say Fortune gave good advice to social media users - I feel like even that might be a little too generous.

On a face value, yeah, it seems like good advice. But what about the undercurrent running through the entire article? "If you personal brand you're running against the company" or what employers might take from it "Personal branding is bad"

Can't the two work together? Shouldn't the message be "If you personal brand, do it in a way that benefits all parties"? There is potential for that.
The Home Depot employee who offered to host a Twitter town hall discussion. That's a fantastic example of both building a social media presence and benefiting the company you work for.

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