K. Ram Kumar, who sits on the board of directors at ICICI Bank and heads the group's human resource function, is an interesting man to talk with about pretty much anything. He comes from a school of thought that firmly believes everybody ought to get a kick up their backsides in the 40s. Else, he says, nobody will rethink priorities and ask questions around what you ought to do as opposed to what you are currently doing.
This kick, he points out, should be serious—like getting fired from your job just when you're close to the top. Or for that matter, getting superseded at work by somebody nowhere as competent as you are. Gut-wrenching as it may be, chances are, when events like these occur, it compels you to ask tough questions.
For instance, if you were doing something you didn't enjoy and love, why did you do it? Even assuming that was not the case, why did you put in 80-hour work weeks? How do you look your spouse and children in the eye and acknowledge they were ignored because you placed work above all else? Why did you ignore personal growth at the altar of your career?
These are tough questions. "But inevitably people put away asking these until tomorrow," says Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman at Gurgaon-based Feedback Infrastructure Services. He is one of those rare creatures, who, like Ram Kumar have spent an awful amount of time thinking through to avoid the metaphorical kick on the backside. But most importantly, when it does come and hit in the gut, do you have the personal equity to ride through a storm?
Building equity of this kind can be an incredibly tough ask. The question is when and where do you begin. Chatterjee thinks you ought to start by asking yourself the most basic one: What will make me happy?
The first time, he recalls, asking that question was when he was doing his summer training at Pond's India. Training done, he took on an offer the company made him. Six months later, he resigned. "I realized selling cosmetics was not my calling." Some thinking later, he decided the infrastructure business was where he'd be happy. "Rejection was my choice. Acceptance of what gives me joy followed later."
In first asking this fundamental question, rejecting what he had on hand, and thinking through what would eventually make him happy, Chatterjee acquired a persona—or as he says, "in very loose terms, a personal brand".
A persona, in his dictionary, is not fame—but the uniqueness every individual possesses and is presented to or perceived by others. It is often substituted for the term personal branding. He isn't entirely comfortable though with how an individual's persona and personal branding are used as interchangeable terms. "Because," he cautions, "the brand is not the target. The target is what you want to do with your life."
A caveat though—it is not entirely possible to ignore personal branding.Timothy Ferris, best-selling writer and "a shameless self-promoter" as described by critics, writes, "Personal branding is about managing your name—even if you don't own a business—in a world of misinformation, disinformation, and semi-permanent Googlerecords. Going on a date? Chances are that your ‘blind' date has googled your name. Going to a job interview? Ditto."
That is where life coaches like Rajeev Raju comes in. Until very recently, he was a senior executive at Deutsche Bank and played key strategic roles at the bank's advisory and analytics functions across various locations. Since then, he has moved on to set up Gravitas Consulting because he finds people interesting above all else. His proposition is that pretty much anything an individual does is because they want to influence outcomes. Therefore, he says, you ought to understand the nature of influence and try to tame the beast.
"At my workshops, when I ask people, why do you go to work everyday, not a single person in the audience tells me I go to work to gain influence," he says. But, in attempting to discover your persona, it is important to understand "everything you do is about gaining influence", he says. "Every little thing you do, from getting your child to eat something, your wife to watch a movie with you, or to create something bigger than yourself, you need to influence."
By way of example, he speaks of Ramakant Achrekar, Sachin Tendulkar's coach. "He convinced Sachin potential is on his side. Achrekar's authority and influence came from observing how Sachin plays the game, asking him why did he do what he did, pointing out what he could possibly do, and then leaving Sachin alone to play the balls as it came to him on the field. Achrekar didn't go out to bat. But his influence is there for all to see."
But acquiring influence alone as a tool for personal branding is a rather shallow way of looking at things in the long run, argues Chatterjee. The more important thing is reaching to a place where there is no difference between your public and personal selves. Else, dichotomies creep into your persona. And this is where he thinks problems exist if you think of building a personal brand with the explicit intention of impressing the external world.
That is why he talks dismissively of makeover consultants who exist to advise people on what and how they ought to build personal brands.
This includes everything from how an individual appears in public to the kind of noises they make in polite company and obsessing over metrics such as the numbers of followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook to measure influence.
Makeover consultants of such kinds have left one of India's largest businessmen with interests in diverse sectors across the world frustrated. For all the professional successes, his personal brand—as perceived by a majority of employees and common people—trusted advisors told him wasn't pretty. They told him he was sniggered at behind his back; and that he ought to engage the services of a global makeover firm to project him in decent light.
After the consultants took over, it was only a matter of time before the man acquired a veneer of sophistication. His ill-fitting suits gave way to well-tailored ones. His accent got polished and the rougher edges he'd acquired in the rough and tumble of business were smoothened to make way for a man who appeared and sounded thoughtful. Public appearances were carefully calibrated and the sceptre of ruthlessness he always carried was passed on to lieutenants to handle. Be that as it may, he continues to be viewed suspiciously. It remains unknown whether the services of his advisory firm have been retained or terminated.
"It doesn't give me great comfort to hear that," says Chatterjee. "If I don't snap at a client, I don't see any reason why I ought to snap at my wife. I don't see that as a positive. You exude your natural behavioural pattern. The issue here is, are you putting on an air? Are you trying to put on something you are not? Being your true self is the true test of a brand."
Such dichotomies, Chatterjee says, exists because people often think of themselves as a product that ought to be branded and marketed well.
Product branding, he explains, is about selling something. And it is often times at variance with what a human actually is. Getting to be an accomplished human being is the outcome of something you do distinctively. It evolves over a lifetime of pursuing what you believe in. "There is no point in building a personal brand consciously. That is too commercial and you have to guard against it. That forced measure of acquiring a brand is not good, because the best brands are built over a lifetime."
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, summed it all up wisely: Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.