With all this blogging and collaborating going on, its interesting to see institutions having to deal with the very new idea of their employees having personal brands and profiles in their own right. Such external visibility used to be the preserve of the CEO and, maybe, his direct reports. But, now, anyone with something to say and the will to do so can have a profile as well.
There is a key difference here, though. The CEO et al, in all but very few cases, has an audience because of the brand aura of the institution they are presently associated with. The bank employee with the personal brand, on the other hand, has an audience because they’ve built it up carefully for themselves.
This can be quite a frightening concept to those entrenched in command-and-control cultures. An employee that can reach the market independently of the official spokesperson? Shocking. A public profile and no officially sanctioned PR plan? Unbelievable.
Luckily, I work for a rather enlightened institution in this respect. I do a lot of blogging here, do press work, and appear at conferences. Recently, I’ve started to do innovation keynotes for audiences in other industries. And, as I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m doing a book for Wiley. To all these things, my bank has taken the view that what I’m doing is an excellent way to get some early learning with respect to managing this kind of activity from employees.
Because, let’s face it, more and more bank employees are coming out of the institutional closet. My blogroll, for example, has a significant number of people who are actually bank employees and write about their work in public. They might not quite identify their parent institutions in every case, but it is the simplest of detective work to find out their affiliations. Nonetheless, their opinions are widely read, and quite significant in shaping the forward direction of the industry.
Though I am blessed with a supportive environment, I rather doubt that everyone is as lucky as I am. Recently I was speaking with some senior leadership at another institution, and they were surprised, firstly, that I would consider it worth my time to do all this stuff (“why don’t you just concentrate on your innovation agenda?”). And then I was surprised when they didn’t think that it would be in any way impactful to them if one of their employees started to do similarly outwardly facing work, so long as it wasn’t on their brand.
Here is at least one thing I’ve found that has helped me: being out means that you can avoid the Curse of Incumbency. That’s what happens after you’ve been in a job for a while and people begin to imagine that outside experts are a better place to get advice than internal staffers. There is always someone more expert of course, but people with profiles are much more likely to be respected for their expertise internally. That makes it simpler to do one’s job. After all, if the outside thinks you are an expert, you clearly are (ironical tone intended).
Where might all this be going? The very best people already have extensive personal networks, and at least some profile of their own. Increasingly, they will be able to leverage those to get an institution’s messages into the market. They won’t care to rely on the internal “brand makers” to do this work for them, and attempts to shut down all these back channels to an institution’s audiences will likely result in attrition in the war for talent. I’d expect this to become a more and more pressing issue for Institutional communications leaders to deal with, as their control over the available channels to audiences dilutes.
What should institutions be doing right now? Find someone in your organisation that is “out”, and work through the gate-keeping steps you need now. It is way better to have prepared the way internally than to be scrambling with a whole pile of trailblazers over which an institution will be able to wield less and less control.