As increasing numbers of people are endeavoring for a more intentional career path, personal branding is becoming an important topic. Simon Sinek and his work have been instrumental in shaping the narrative around personal branding, from one of telling others how great they are, to showing others who they are.

Telling looks like casting our skills in terms like “proven-leader,” “high-level,” “results-oriented,” and a bevy of adjectives that engender more hype than substance. Showing looks like us talking about who we are in terms of what we believe in, what we stand for, and what gets us excited.

A 2016 study of more than 26,000 LinkedIn members in 40 different countries showed that employees who are driven more so by purpose are more engaged and have greater longevity than those who are not purpose-oriented. So as companies are slowly beginning to grasp this reality, they are naturally looking for people with a leaning toward purpose. When we lead from our WHY, as Sinek invites us to do, we offer employers something more meaningful and compelling than just telling them how great we are.


A Common Pitfall

Telling people how great we are is a common pitfall we can easily fall into. One example is a husband and wife team who we did an extensive brand strategy process with and then provided detailed consultation on how to rebuild their website to lead from their WHY. Some months after we worked with them, they found themselves talking with a trusted marketing guru who criticized their website as not being immediately clear as to WHAT they do. Given the obvious credibility of this marketer they quickly re-organized their website to lead from their WHAT . . . that is, until we had another conversation to review the importance of leading from their WHY.

It makes sense on the surface to quickly tell people WHAT we do, and to do so in terms that expresses how capable, experienced and effective we are at it. But when we convey our personal brand in this way, we are reducing ourselves to a mere commodity, because anyone can say they do work similar to you, and then cast their work in terms of how good they are. This approach does not distinguish you in any particular way (unless your work history is so incredible that it stops people in their tracks, which is rare).


Show Versus Tell

It is better to show people who we are by courageously stating what we stand for, what we believe in, and what drives us. As it’s been said by many thought leaders, it’s better to measure a person by their actions than their words.

Of course, we are “results-oriented” if we have any kind of desire to be successful. Of course, we have “leadership skills” if we wish to forge new paths. Of course, we are “high-level” if we think like a leader and are willing to take risks. What is more important is WHY.

Is it just about the money or status, or is it something deeper, more enriching and ultimately more interesting?

Showing people who we are is vulnerable, yes, but it’s also necessary if we want to distinguish ourselves—to stand out from the crowd—and most importantly, to attract the kind of opportunities that are so perfectly suited to our unique abilities and desires that our career path becomes something of much greater meaning.

Brené Brown shares that, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” And so, building an intentional career path of meaning (by showing not telling) is courageous.


When Work Experience Is Overwhelming

Another client we are working with has so much experience (breadth and depth) that to talk about all that she’s done and all that she’s capable of would not only read like an incredibly grandiose and overly wordy description, but would be confusing to those who may be interested in working with her, as her resume is truly overwhelming.

So instead we distilled her career down to what she is now interested in doing, and not interested in doing. Then we helped her find her WHY and co-wrote a short 75-word positioning statement that makes her truly stand out based on strong statements of who she is and what she stands for. If her 75-word description resonates with an individual they scan scroll down her LinkedIn to read all the detail. But to try and capture attention first by stating some incredible list of accomplishments will quickly sound like, “Bla, bla, bla . . . I’ve heard this all before.”


Finding Our WHY

Simon Sinek came on the world stage with his TEDx Puget Sound talk in 2009, a video that continues to rack up millions of views each year. Then with his best seller Start With Why, Sinek became a trusted thought leader, inspiring millions to search for and find their WHY.

But then what? Easier said than done, right?

Buddha has been attributed as saying, “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it,” a quote that implies that finding our WHY is not just a check-the-box kind of thing. We don’t just go sit in a room for an hour or a day or a week and emerge with our WHY. It’s a continuously evolving process—a scale, if you will—of moving from uncertainty to clarity.

Therefore, to show versus tell, to re-cast our resume, our LinkedIn profile, CV or 30-second elevator pitch in such a way that inspires, versus impresses, is also a continuously evolving process. We don’t just “find” our WHY, we discover it over time. We cast it and re-cast it. We speak it out loud to people to see how it feels and how it lands with them. Not measuring it by how impressed they are with our WHY, but rather by how well it resonates.


Resonation Is the Key

Telling people what we’ve done, what our accomplishments are and how good we are at what we do is a process of appealing to their intellect. Showing who we are by stating courageously what we stand for is a way of potentially reaching beyond their intellect to actually resonate with them.

Why is this important?

It’s important to stand out, because resonation triggers an emotional response, and emotions lingers with a person far longer than concepts such as she has this ability or that experience. No matter how great your abilities and experience are, there will always be someone else with similar or even better experience than you.

Therefore, the way to stand out and be memorable is to resonate. And the way we resonate is by showing people who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in.


How Do We “Show” With Words?

At this point you might be asking the question, if I’m just writing or speaking the words related to what I believe in and what I stand for, am I not still telling?

Great question. The difference is in what part of a person you are triggering. Or even more to the point, are you actually triggering anything in a person as they read or hear your words?

When we speak to our skills, experience and qualifications, (all important things to convey) we are setting the stage for comparison. “This candidate is strong in this area but doesn’t have what we need in this other area.” Or “This candidate has exactly what we need,” or “doesn’t have what we need.” And so on. This is a strictly intellectual left-brain process.

On the other hand, when we speak to what we believe and what we stand for (what gets us excited) the power in the words comes from the authenticity of the words, as the authenticity conveys courage and conviction. These conveyances have the potential to trigger an emotional response, the kind of response that moves your resume to the top of the pile, or motivates a person you’re talking with to make an important introduction, or recommend you, or even to hire you on the spot.

While skills and experience comparison serve an important purpose in the end, those making decisions will reach a conclusion that they want you on their team based on the emotional triggers, and then they will look to your qualifications to justify the decision they’ve already made.


The Common Tendency

The common tendency is to start with what we’ve done, what we know, what abilities and accomplishments. This feels comfortable and seems to set us apart from others, or at least it appears on the surface to make us stand out. But truly, it’s a fleeting experience for the recipient.

Speaking to who we are, showing who we are, is scary, vulnerable, and also courageous. It feels risky, but what could be riskier than talking merely about our skills and accomplishments and hoping somehow someone will take notice. And when it doesn’t work, the next common tendency is to be more grandiose, to speak louder, to shout in the proverbial sense.


The Alternative

The alternative is to speak softly and with great authenticity: this is who I am.

There will be those who won’t get you. There will be those who don’t resonate. That may be a little hard. But it will lead you to those who will get you, and there is where the magic happens.

Building an intentional career path comes from connecting with people emotionally, so they get you, understand you, or at least they see that there is some small spark of specialness in you that they want on their team.

It’s a two-way street—what you desire, and what you bring. The two-way nature of it is potentially transformational for both parties, while skills for money is merely transactional.


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