Josie Ahlquist: Hello, and welcome to this shorty episode of Josie and the Podcast with just me, Josie. I am geeked to be digging in today about two things that I love talking about, branding and authenticity. But a warning, be ready to get to work. In this episode, I’m putting on my teacher hat to lead you through an exercise, well, you will be reflecting about how you want to show up online, whether you call that authenticity or branding at all.
Before we dig in, I got to take a moment to get a shout out to my podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar. Because y’all, the internet is real life, which means the perception of your campus online is reality. Social listening can help you determine what your online conversation looks like within the context of what makes your campus unique, like typical conversation volume, topics, or sentiment so you can create strategies that are authentic to your brand. Campus Sonar is a higher education social listening agency on a mission to help campuses find online conversations that give higher ed professionals the insights they need to support their institution’s goals. They wrote the Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook to be your go-to resource for assessing your brand and understanding how you can strategically use social listening. And the best part, it’s free. You can download it today at information.campussonar.com\handbook.
In this episode, I’m breaking down a reflective exercise that it’s going to help you reflect on and build out an authentic brand from your bio to your next tweet. This is just a little bit of hint of an exercise that’s included in my upcoming book, not available until spring 2020, but I just couldn’t wait to start to share a little bit of it now. I have been surprised over the years, but also not surprised, that the word brand and authenticity has a lot of debate behind it. Folks get riled up and have some opinions, especially when we think about our own individual presence. It’s pretty accepted. Our universities, our departments, our organizations have a brand from logos, to color schemes, and so on. But when we think about our own selves, our own identities, and you start to use words like personal brand, our digital reputation, digital branding, and some ruffles get … or, feathers get ruffled.
So, I’d like to first start with a few definitions. And I will put my stake in the ground about where I stand. I honestly don’t want you to get caught up in language, and that’s why I give an exercise that you can call it whatever the heck that you want to feel like you can use these tools to take them back to work for you to be able to show up in ways that feel whatever word that you’re looking for. If you call that authentic, real, relatable, sincere, honest, use whatever word you want.
So, branding, personal branding, digital branding, professional branding. Again, let’s not get caught up in language. At the end of the day, it should evoke emotion. There should be some impression left behind with a tone and, again, remembrance. When I approach helping folks understand branding for their own individual use is, well, what if we could get behind and be intentional about what that emotion is, what that tone is, and the impression that you are leaving behind, again, intentionally and not just haphazardly.
Digital branding, it’s an active form of communication that you are aware of what you’re putting out there is building collectively this tone, this remembrance. So, it should be clear. It should be consistent. It should bring out your values through these digital storytelling platforms. It should evoke emotion. If I was to scroll through your feed, I would feel like I could almost read some transcript of what your mission is. And again, the exercise we’re going to do today is going to help you do that.
Other authors have wrote about digital branding, including in a book called Branding Yourself, Eric Decker’s and Kyle Lacy. They talk about this by-product, like I just shared. They say, “To create the right kind of emotional response you want people to have when they hear your name, see you online, or meet you in person.” In The Impact Equation, Chris Brogan and Julie Stanwell Smith wrote that storytelling packages your quirks, and I like that word, quirks, by putting a little bit of attention and mindfulness into the way you represent yourself to the outside world. And, that’s an interesting approach to it, not only the quirks but the packaging, the mindfulness. So, we’re starting to use some more words other than just presentation or performance where sometimes those are words we think about within branding.
Again, branding can get a bad rap, I feel, like in higher ed when we think about our own individual accounts. So, start to think about words like intentionality and even mindfulness. That is also why I have chosen the approach of using authentic branding. As a leadership educator, I’m excited to share with you a little bit of the background behind that word and application within leadership because I hope, as leaders or those that are transforming into your own leadership presence, this could be a tool in your toolkit on and offline that you could approach your life and leadership with.
And the first words I think of and apply to authenticity is congruence. That is a word that shows up in all of my education from college students to campus executives about digital leadership. I also think of a word like alignment. And honestly, what feels right or wrong, good or bad in our gut, in our deep heart? Because when you’re posting something, when you are thinking about your Twitter bio, or the platforms that you want to be on, you probably are starting to feel a little bit of an emotional response yourself, so that’s where we connect the two. Authenticity, it has you show up in your own thoughts, feelings, emotions along with branding, the word branding where you might feel a little bit distant from that we can connect the two. So, authentic branding, my goal is to forge fully and make that holistic.
So, there’s a number of different researchers and authors that came up with the constructs of authentic leadership that I dig way into into the book, and I’ll include a few resources in the show notes if you’re kind of geeked out to dig in more. One is Bill George. He developed an approach using characteristics and qualities. He studied 125 successful leaders who he found was displaying five dimensions of what he calls authentic leadership. And those five are purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline, and heart.
A little bit more about those five. So first purpose, a strong sense of purpose includes a passion for their goals and deep care for their work. Number two, with values, they have strong values. This concept of a true North, having a conviction about the right thing that connects values and behavior. Number three, relationships. So, they have trusting relationships with others that’s going to call them to have access through connection and trust. Number four, demonstration of self-discipline and acting on their values. It requires them to be focused and consistent with their strategy and also helps protect a leader’s energy. And then finally, empathy and sensitivity towards others. It’s seen as a willingness in a collective action.
What I love to do with leadership theories, y’all, and how I started this entire journey in business is I look at leadership theories. And even though they are not intended to be applied in digital spaces, for me, they just jump off the page as, well, you could apply this same authentic leadership five dimensions and show up on social, build a brand, have a mission behind your work on an offline based on these five, and so having a strong purpose in what platforms that you’re on. We’ve already strategy and self-discipline was one of those, is building a strategy that not only is going to protect your own energy but it builds trust and communication with others. And then the last one that I loved, which was heart, inserts empathy and sensitivity and keep in minds that collective action. And wow, wouldn’t that be amazing in a place like Twitter?
So, know that is a little bit of background about authenticity. When I define authenticity, I’m not just saying like, “Just be yourself. Be real. Be you.” We can build our brand off of established leadership philosophies and theories that already exist so you don’t feel like you’re just guessing of, well, maybe this feels authentic or this is how I do or don’t define being authentic. I mean, at the end of the day, you do get to do that, but I find having a little bit of examples and constructs might give you some great direction.
Another researcher team with a … There was a number of them. A little bit later in 2008, they dug way more into existing literature and research as well as they did content expert interviews in order to validate a theory-based instrument about authentic leadership, and they came up with four different factors of authenticity. There is some similarities between what Bill George came up.
The first one is self-awareness, knowledge, and trust in one’s own thought, feeling, motives, and that’s going to come up anywhere y look up literature about authenticity. Do you know yourself? And ourselves change over time, too. So, the self work is really important if you want to really insert that leadership purpose.
Number two, very interesting, internalize moral perspective, so, ethics, and morals. And, trust is another similarity between the two. This example is really interesting, self-regulation. Can you be aware of your own emotions, of your own self, and then being able to navigate how that shows up, whether you’re in the office, around campus or online?
Number three is balanced processing. You now are a core decision maker trying to be objective and analyze information even if there’s disagreements, right? How does this apply to Twitter? I mean, because no one ever disagrees online, and that you need to evaluate whether you’re going to say something or block someone.
And number four, relational transparency. Transparency is a word that we hear brought up within authenticity a lot, as well as the intentionality piece. And that defined is valuing honesty, openness of true self, ability to share both negative and positive attributes. So again, I’ll link those two research and authors in the show notes to know that I’m coming in with a little bit of framework, that I’m not just throwing out this idea of authenticity is this floaty, like head in the clouds kind of concept.
So where I come in with what is authentic branding, it is built around the entire philosophy behind digital leadership, is that it’s an authentic approach that humanizes a person that’s happens to be in a position on campus that prioritizes community connection. And I believe, and what’s built into the guiding principles of digital leadership and the book, is with personalization, the priority of connections, those can be what can fuel your brand, but your own authentic approach to that is going to be very, very personalized. It should excite you. Your authentic brand should evoke your own emotions that you feel like you’re talking to yourself that it doesn’t … It could be aspirational for sure, but that’s why the exercise I’m going to share in just a second really digs into some pretty personal questions that you may not expect would need to show up or be considered for online.
I call this exercise the brand-building blocks. I built them, especially for higher ed pros an educational environment because we’re also at the end going to address our own campus culture and branding standards. I find doing exercises like this increase confidence and ownership of your choices. It is self work. You are going to have to invest in the time, potentially. And as I go over these, I invite you to pause the recording. I have also created a one-sheet worksheet on my website that has all the show notes as well, Josieahlquist.com\podcasts, that you can download, and write out, and share with your colleagues and friends and use at your leisure that I hope will be very helpful.
So, the five brand-building blocks that we’re going to move through in this exercise are concepts around presence, spark, drive, beliefs, and legacy. I created those with the tenants of authentic leadership in mind. And you’re going to discover that these are not in the clouds or surface level types of questions. They’re going to be significant self-discovery, self-awareness types of questions. I might also encourage you to seek feedback from others. Ask a colleague, close friend, or member based on the question what they would say about you to continue the process of reflection. So again, grab a piece of paper, head to the website, print off that PDF, or come back to this episode to keep thinking about these five brand-building blocks.
Number one is presence. The questions I’d like you to think about is when you walk into a room, what are the descriptor words that you would like to be associated with your presence, the first five that maybe come to mind? How do people currently describe you? How would you describe yourself? And if you’re a visual person, if there are colors, characters or an artistic expression that helps represent you, allow that to come out of you as well. As you see some of the similarities within this presence part of the exercise, see some things that start to have themes, words and phrases that you use over and over. So for me, if I was to share maybe the top five words, caring, driven, funny, organized, and an aspirational one would be respected.
The second block to our brand-building blocks is spark. These questions include, what are your unique attributes, skills, or experiences? What is your story, from the shortest version that you give on an elevator to a more intimate and longer background at coffee? Who and what were the drivers in what made you who you are today? Without editing yourself, think or draw the first five things. Some things that came to mind for me was that I’m a daughter of a kindergarten teacher, a holder of four academic degrees, a small town girl, triathlete, and rescuer of homeless Los Angeles animals. I also added EpicLLOYD’s original fan girl.
Number three in our brand-building blocks in this exercise is drive. Other than your alarm clock, what gets you up in the morning, or what is worth staying up way longer for in the evening? What do you love to do with your free time or head to out on vacation? What do you think about the most, and why? Are there specific causes that drive your actions, like social justice, access, politics, family? For example, do you like spending quality time with your family, girls empowerment, self-care, independence, options for all to fully experience life? Those are just a few of mine. From simple to silly, from serious to significant, think of at least five things that are your driving force just today.
A few other things that come to mind for me, a well-researched plan and making plans. I love making plans, y’all. We have an anniversary coming up, and I just love Airbnb, searching TripAdvisor. That’s just my jam. I also think a ton about being the best aunt that I can be to my nieces and nephew. I love empowering other people’s voices. Think a lot about my purpose and why the heck I’m here.
Okay, we’ve got two more, beliefs. As you think about this building block of your brand for beliefs, here are some questions. What are the core beliefs that you’ve developed throughout your life in your career path as a daily professional on your personal activities? Do your beliefs come from any defined faith, spirituality, religion, framework, philosophy? Or what philosophies do you have about life, leadership, identity, about making a living, about serving others that help shape how you show up? Another deep one, what ethos guides your ethics and decision making? If you really had to dig into those core beliefs, where are they coming from?
And the very last one is legacy. The questions I would like you to think about is when you leave your current role, what impact do you hope you will have made? The freshman that you just met, or hired, or trained, what influence will they say you had played by the time they graduate in four, five, or six years? Think about your aspirational CV or aspirational website or podcast stream. What are the things that you hope to see that you had accomplished? Think through at least four wishes that you hope to have for your impact.
And with all of those different answers, whether they’re one word, or stick figures, or an entire finger paintings, look for commonalities, things that you can easily connect the dots between. Then, maybe take a moment to see if there were surprising things that were left out that maybe just the questions hadn’t yet leaded you to those, and you can go back in and add them. That’s completely fine. Take a moment for this. This might be an exercise that’s also important to do in a couple days that you start it. Take a pause and come back. Because it’s really important first to get the you figured out.
The bonus part to this is we situate ourselves as educators in higher ed is knowing our environments, our campuses, our organizations where we are situated. Because this is also where the rub happens is when we have a belief, a value, a legacy wish that doesn’t align with our university, or college, or organization. And I’m not here to give advice if there’s a discovery of misalignment or incongruence between you and your employer. What I do want you to at least have an awareness of, if you don’t already, is what the branding and the mission is of where you happen to give your professional work to today.
Couple questions to consider. Where does the values, the brand, the mission of your institution align or come into conflict with some of your core values? So, look up their mission. Look up what the values are, both written and unwritten. Sometimes the unwritten and unspoken ones can be the ones that end up giving us the most pause. Does your institution have policies or guidelines for personal use of tech, or branding, or the use of logos? Some universities go so far as to saying on Twitter that any state-based employee must state in their bio that their tweets are not representative of their institution. So, that question’s a little bit more logistical to know if there are some branding considerations that your university’s already requesting you to keep in mind in your online presence.
With that piece aside and all of the work that you just did through this brand-building exercise, I want you to go back and look at all those correlations and crossovers. And I really hope that the values and mission of your university, what it stands for on paper and not said, there will be more commonalities and crossovers than you realized. See if you can start to summarize some of these. If you had just a few words that you had to hone it down to a few phrases, a few sentences that summarizes, what would some of those be? We went through the process of thinking about your presence. Lot of this is your physical presence, even down to colors. What’s your spark? We’re talking about emotion and stories. What’s your drive? What that push is for you, your beliefs, the core components, and then your legacy, thinking about long, long term. And see if anything starts to stand out. Because what we want to do is use those commonalities, those words, those colors, there’s phrases and get them to show up in places that then brings alignment from your in real life to still real life online life.
So, uploading your authentic brand, it takes intentionality and reflection. And it’s okay if you’ve been going years and years and just kind of posting and changing your statuses and your bio’s as you go. That’s totally, totally fine. But, I think the further we move along in this digital leadership journey, it’s nice to have a pause for a moment to make sure that we’re on track. And maybe we just need a little adjustment to embrace and enact some authenticity.
Places where this could live out, and some examples that I would encourage you to check out, is everywhere from your profile and cover photos to your bios, to your usernames, to your websites. So, I’m going to give a few examples, and all of these will be in the show notes. You’d be surprised when you start to look at all the things that you have posted, both in copy and in different types of content-like photos, if there’s themes. So for example Gordon V, West Virginia University, he has bow tie everything. That is on brand for him, like bright colors, school colors, like that. He’s gone full on into that. You just look in his Twitter feed, and you’re going to see that type of consistency.
Usernames I also get asked about a lot, especially those aspiring currently executives and then those are transitioning to another executive position most likely at another institution. And I would ask you just to kind of look out at examples out there. The ones honestly that I enjoy following with the most that I find really do have this authentic approach, it’s their name. One dean, now associate vice president at Ohio University, Jenny Hall-Jones, she is known as Jenny Hall-Jones because she is @jennyhalljones.
You also have personas. The persona, the brand is in alignment, like I’ve had on Hip Hop Pres a few times on the podcast. And that embodies him. And he says he’s going to take that handle wherever he goes. Mordecai Brownlee, hint, hint, he is going to be a future guest on this podcast, and his username is itsdrmordecai. You also see examples where, let’s say, Santa Ono, president at University of British Columbia, previously at University of Cincinnati, he archived previous Twitter feed @presono, and now he’s @ubcpres. So, that’s an interesting case study to observe to see that transition.
My suggestion is to let your title come out in your bio rather than getting all worked up about how to make it work in your username. That’s just a logistical suggestion. But the reason why you’d want to consider and do the exercise we just did before you went out and figured out what your username was is you might find that there is a natural fit that the audiences that you’re wanting to connect with and the tone that you want to set may required a more formal definition, such as @vpsalastname. Because know that even a username does set a tone for emotion. I just think that that’s really interesting.
A bigger consideration, so don’t get all caught up in usernames because you can sign up for a number of usernames if you just want to know you’ve got them, is your bio. A number of the examples that I shared when I was giving a few examples in my brand-building exercise do show up in my bio. So, that might be fuel for you as you go back and see if your current bio needs a little personalization and more planning behind it. It also could make you pause for a moment if you were to scroll back through your last two weeks to two months of content, if you could find some of the answers that you just gave and see if there are some connections there. If not, that could be an opportunity for where your strategy could go from here.
We get to make our bio’s on Twitter that’s up to 160 characters. LinkedIn is 200 to 250. Instagram’s a bit shorter, 150. That’s where we go back to what that elevator pitch answer would be. If you had 20 seconds to explain yourself, what would you say? What tone? What emotion? What beliefs? What spark? what drive? Going back to those five building blocks, how could you fit those in?
A couple that I would like to share that I think will give some great role modeling and examples is Russell Lowery-Hart. He’s the president of Amarillo College. His Twitter bio says, “I fight for students and those that fight for students as @amarillocollege president. Firm believer in community college as a key to economic development.”
Another one also in Texas who has been a podcast guest, Jennielle Strother. She also is a big believer in authenticity, both in action, and in practice, and in research. She says, “VP of enrollment management at Concordia, TX #firstgen, #proudlatina, org leadership prof scholar, higher ed, #HSIs, founder EMchat @texasheart, doc student Northwestern.” She really packs that Twitter bio in. You get to know a whole lot about her drive and missions.
Then, Dr. Daria Willis, she is a new president Everett Community College. I’m a big fan girl of all the things that she’s doing on campus and online. Her Twitter and Instagram bio says, “President at Everett Community College, wife, mother, daughter, sister, granddaughter, and friend.”
So in addition to bios, what other place where you could think about this authentic branding and how it could live out is even your university homepage. This is a bonus reflection question. I want you to think about who do you want to land on this page. What action do you want them to take? Other than email, how can people contact you? Can you include your social media handles? And is this just really a copy and paste bio from somewhere or can you add some elements of the authentic branding building blocks that we just went through? Even in some of the sentence structure and wordings that you use, can we make these bios on our websites or different parts of your landing page? How can we even make that feel a little bit more authentic and shareable?
I’d love to see some examples. If you believe and you’re into your bio, your username, your website, whatever it is, send it to me @josieahlquist on Twitter and on Instagram. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope this exercise was helpful for you, that you can refer back to it. Play it for your staff. Play it for your kids. They could think about these questions as they approach how they want to show up in intentions of being authentic on social media.
So, what discoveries did you find in these building blocks of branding? How is this a little different from maybe other ways you’ve thought about branding or authenticity in the past? I would love to hear if you’ve maybe tweaked, or added, or subtracted anything from your online presence and what that strategy is going to look like in the future.
Again, both branding and authenticity definitions and actualizations, they’ll be continued to be debated. But while you’re arguing about what they are on paper, your community is waiting, and your legacy can be made more clear. So let me bring in another piece of work by a fantastic author and researcher Brené Brown, who will tie this all up nicely together. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real, the choice to be honest, the choice to let our true selves be seen. And one more. She says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is a source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Thanks for joining me on another episode of Josie and the Podcast. I am honored that you have clicked play on this episode. I’d love to know who you are and how authentic branding and the building blocks are showing up and working for you. Say hello to me @josieahlquist or the Twitter account is @josieatpodcast. If Instagram, again, is more your jam, find me. DMs are open. Story replies are all clear @josieahlquist. Until next time, this has been Josie and the Podcast.
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