Gautam Ghosh is an unassuming personal brand who has helped guide many other professionals shape who they are through the deliberate act of blogging. Today, many HR and digital media experts owe their success to Gautam’s evangelism and propagation of getting the word out to the world. In this interview, he reflects on his personal journey and what it to be known as a domain champion and the nuances of engaging online and outcomes of sharing knowledge. Gautam also shares his regrets and hopes for the future as personal brands. Great insights for those wanting to make a mark through hard work and deep connections. Read the complete interview below and look up the YouTube video interview. Look up more such stories on my YouTube channel and on LinkedIn.
- What according to you is personal branding?
I have mixed feelings about the term. Since I studied organizational behavior and HR, I am aware of the term of branding and not very comfortable with it. According to marketing literature, a person is hugely complex and there are also group dynamics involved when it comes to branding. Branding is mostly for goods and services. I would go by the classic 4Ps understanding of branding like how Kotler defined it – product, price, place and promotion. The essence of this is reputation, when it comes to capability or competency of the individual. Reputation is what you do on a day-to-day basis. Earlier only your manager and you will know what you do. Reputation precedes you these days when it comes to showcasing your expertise, even before you have met or will ever meet anyone. This is due to the influence of social media – be in Instagram or Twitter or You Tube.
2. Do you consider yourself a personal brand? How do you know it?
I would be hesitant to call myself a personal brand. Primarily because I was lucky. There was a bunch of us who began in July 2002 with blogging. In 2004 I became quite regular. In the meantime, I got involved with a few Yahoo groups on topics like HR and KM. These linked with my first attempts at chronicling my learning. I was also part of the bulletin boards and my blogs were on personal knowledge management. I started on Blogger and when I was posting these e-mails by cutting and pasting from Technorati (to know which people are linking to my blog), I realized there were two guys in Canada who also wrote on HR and careers and jobs. Just being the first to write and share probably helped. I am apprehensive of being called a thought leader. Thought leaders are people like Tom Peters, Dave Ulrich and Josh Bersin. Since I was the first to write on HR in the eastern hemisphere, I got referenced a lot and it became a virtuous cycle. People would say ‘Ask Gautam’ if you want to know views from that part of the world. In 2004, my blog got voted the top 3 Indiblogs of the year. Those days, we had people like Amit Agarwal and Amit Varma as early bloggers and formed the initial set of desi bloggers.
3. What does one do to go about building a personal brand?
My advice is to keep on writing. Keep posting links to interesting stuff with some commentary. My frequency is about 2 blog posts a day. Short and snippy is preferred – quite like the way we do for Twitter right now. Since I gravitated into and took it as a mission to share information and become a conduit for others. I noticed my peers and mostly everyone was putting their head down and doing their work. The whole phenomenon of many to many communications wasn’t appreciated then. I knew that it will disrupt the power structures in organizations, stakeholders, employers and alumni. I freelanced after my stint at Deloitte and became a blogging consultant although social media wasn’t on my mind. I would advise people – ‘you should start a blog’. My goal was to educate the HR community in India and on the merits of embracing social media. Also, on ways to communicate with employees – post 2009, the cognitive understanding of this increased. I used to participate in conferences of SHRM and talk of how social media is impacting the workplace. Proud that I was among the earlier ones to talk about it and to know that you have influenced far bigger audiences.
4. What are the attributes of a personal brand? And what do people associate your brand with?
People use adjectives like HR blogger, future of work and social media evangelist when they associate with my personal brand. Also, Employee-employer, remote working, work from home – future of work has been the theme. This topic Impacts everyone. I am a ‘future of work’ specialist.
5. Based on your observations and learning who according to you is a personal brand? What characteristics do you admire about them?
I would name Abhjit Bhaduri who has thousands of followers on Linkedin. As the first HR leader, I had the pleasure to get on blogging. He was my first client at Frito Lay and he asked me to talk to his HR team and why HR needs to think differently. We started a Frito Lay blogspot page as well. He experiments with various media and has a podcast. Abhijit is constantly learning and is multi-faceted. He did a radio show in the US. Another personal brand according to me is Leena Nair, who is the voice of diversity at Unilever. She owns a hashtags #learningwithleena across platforms. Then there is Gurprriet Siingh of Korn Ferry. If you recollect, we had a networking site called Ryze.com and I got in touch with him on that platform and convinced him to start a blog. He is now a coach. Likewise, Sairee Chayal of Sheroes, Achyut Menon, a recruiter for those returning to India in the mid-management segment, Harlina Sodhi, Vivek Paranjpe and Aadil Bandukwala. Then there is Rashmi Bansal whose first book – ‘Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish’ became popular and she is known as a youth marketing expert of India.
6. What challenges did you face while building a personal brand? What techniques did you use to overcome them?
I felt the monetary aspect was the biggest challenge. As a freelancer I spent long periods of time in an area where not many people understood it or had faith in you. I did a lot of traditional training, soft skills training, interviewing and performance management. After freelancing I went into corporate life with stints at Flipkart and Philips. During that time, the roles I played didn’t exist and was created to leverage my expertise in employer branding and workplace engagement.
7. What did you gain in the process? What did you lose?
I never really thought of it. That can go into a rabbit hole of despair. There is always the temptation to see where your classmates are from B-school. They however now see me as somebody who is known for HR thought leadership. The grass is always greener on the other side. I feel I had the luxury of spending time with family due to the way I engaged with my pursuits. It enabled me to come back to my home town of Lucknow. With technology, I was able to be connected to my roots and still manage to connect with people globally. I consider myself lucky.
8. How can someone starting from scratch build a personal brand? What is the one piece of advice…first step he or she must take?
Explore a lot of areas before you decide on your niche. For someone starting a career, it is important to explore and be passionate about your domain. Ask if you are willing to articulate it. Lots of people are passionate but fear or shyness prevent them to go forward. Think of how you can manage to put a point of view over. Each blog has a time stamp and if I wrote something in 2016, I may not believe it in anymore. So, don’t worry if what you write now will be held against you. As we grow up, our perspectives change. Lots of people don’t want to put it out there in black and white. Know who you are. It needs courage. Just because there are other bloggers out there, I never thought why I shouldn’t do blogging also. Even though I got out from the corporate world in 7 years it didn’t shape my world view. You need to have the mindset of ‘let’s do something’ rather than be held back by how the corporate world where risk aversion leads us to think ‘let’s not do something’. Remember, every view point has a counterpoint. Unfortunately, people are not ready for dissidents. When I blog, I put out half formed thoughts for people to shape. It is like a clay-pot out there is the oven. It will attract heat and only with heat it will be ready. That’s how I have approached it. Here are the ideas I have-tossed it in the open. It is interesting that this approach makes me smarter in the process. You will find out what you don’t know…lots of people will add to what you don’t know. They may not put it in the most diplomatic way. As long as they are interested in contributing, then it helps. The beauty of social media is that there will be positivity and negativity. The model is to share; the onus is on you. Someone connects on one aspect, you discover a common interest; I have been through the experience. You discover your community in the process. Once you discover your community, connect and collaborate. Kavi Arasu and Gaurav Mishra become thought leaders on these lines. Remember, you own a sliver of the world, the idea sliver. Discover a niche all to yourself. There are so many perspectives. If you recollect Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey – everybody is a hero. There is danger in defeats. You need to overcome your own fears and insecurities and then the hero comes home victorious.
9. If you had the opportunity to change something about the way you built your personal brand, what would that be?
I would earn some more money. I wasn’t financially responsible and that didn’t help. I would be more responsible. I wish I built that part because I didn’t do much since I had bad financial sense. You need a divergent thinker and convergent thinker in both your personal and professional levels to succeed. Like in business you need left and right brainers to make a good match. I grew up in flights of fancy.
10. What is your recipe for personal branding success?
Diverge and discover various parts. Find things that get your excited. If you do that and you find it fun, then stick with it. Don’t let it become a chore. It should not be a burden later for you. For me, when William Gibson retweets what I write, that gives me a high. Likewise, to listen to Tom Peters you may need to pay lakhs; although due to technology and the access you can have conversations with him on social media.
11. With COVID19 and other crises what steps can personal brands take?
This is a time for all of us to concentrate on what’s in our control. Focus on our connections. Use the time to rebuild relationships as people have got busy. Consolidate relationships and concentrate on them. It is not a time for business development and not a time to ask people for work. Reach out and ensure they are safe. For example, there is a Whatsapp group of XLRI alumni – they are in the same country and yet not met. There are a lot of unknowns about work and when things will get to the new normal. Thankfully each of us are connecting are privileged. Lots of people have discovered their passion for giving back to the community. You can choose to curate what people are doing and help migrants and daily wage earners, for example. Amplify little things that matter after doing due diligence.
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- Personal branding for corporate communicators