Sunil Robert and I worked as colleagues and I have observed his strong relationship-building skills and networking abilities at close quarters. If there is anyone who knows the power of authentic engagement and purpose-led living, it is Sunil. A communications professional who comes from a very humble background, crafted a path for himself, overcame challenges like few have and rose to the top of his domain – he has a lot of wisdom to share on commitment, persistence, grit and humility. All great traits to build and sustain a personal brand. Very inspiring to read his personal branding tips.
Watch the YouTube video interview and read the complete interview below. Look up more such stories on my YouTube channel and on LinkedIn.
- What according to you is personal branding?
I had the misfortune of going to B-school and learning management terms! In business, you are expected to be super specialized and create a niche. You also have the option of staying as a generalist. In marketing, I choose the latter. I choose the core skills and allied areas and developed the wherewithal to work with agencies. Marketing is about how to be distinguished or differentiated against competition. In cricket, we know of a Rahul Dravid who was solid in Test cricket and also adapted to play T20 and kept wickets while retaining his core ability as a dependable cricketer. I always loved communications – the written word, speaking in small groups and running events. I also built the functional ability on executive communications. Especially when you engage with leaders who have larger than life personalities, where their egos are disproportionate to their designations you need to be known for a set of key skills. Marketers are seen as enablers or supporters. Having the ability to diversity and manage this world is crucial. I did my journalism and MBA and started as Acer India’s 1st ever communications manager. Today I work as the CMO of start-up with revenue and lead generation goals.
2. Do you consider yourself a personal brand? How do you know it?
Feel reticent about calling myself a brand. There are many other leaders around in the business who can claim this. As a marketer you need to position yourself although this can cut both ways.
If you think you are a brand, it comes in the way of building the brand you want to build! How does a good marketer build other brands and yet create their own? I think the ‘humble marketer’ is an oxymoron! I feel building connections and speaking helped me to get out of my shell. My personal branding journey is probably a rags-to-riches story. In 1999, the Times of India was doing a series on unsung heroes and featured me. When that story came out, people told me that you need to tell your story in terms of a book. No one knew the tough road I took. Every middle-class achiever is a story to be told. There are entrepreneurs like the founder of Paytm who I feel is a personal brand. It is not the scale of the personal story. I love writing and public speaking and along the way speaking on panels came handy in my approach to building my personal brand. You may be aware that public speaking is the number one fear people have, even more than dying. I enjoyed speaking and it all came together to build my credibility and brand.
3. What does one do to go about building a personal brand?
You need to know your natural impulses. I studied in a polytechnic. My first job was soldering and PC assembling. I didn’t think I had the core skills to take that forward. I hated electronics! For me, going out and meeting people was more enriching. I choose a calling in sales as an undergraduate would get in those days. I felt I might as well sell technical products – instrumentation for example. This gave me an opportunity to travel all over India. When I talk to many of my NRIs friends, who have not seen parts of India which I have seen, they are amazed. Be it Bhokaro or Dhanbad – the coal mines – very few people know the breadth of India like I had the opportunity to. I have this creative side of me that loved advertising on TV. In pursuit of getting into the creative business, I took a huge pay-cut to join advertising. When you switch domains as we all know, in any domain (in my case from sales to advertising), you had to start all over again. I did that and worked my way up. I can say proudly that very advertising people had the grounding I had, because I did take this step of starting from scratch. My ability to write good briefs and understand the consumer held me in good stead. I can say I was burnished in the school of hard realities. My question is can you harvest these investments in experiences?
4. What are the attributes of a personal brand? And what do people associate your brand with?
It is about strong core values. I never sold anything that harmed others – be it cigarettes, alcohol or gambling products. I know what it can do to families and how these habits can physically hurt people. As an individual, I believe in personal values. Being genuine is important. In the corporate world, people tend to play a lot of games. In my professional career, I knew if I played the games they played, it would go well – but never had to. You can’t keep a good person down. I didn’t want to play the games others played. For example, I am a teetotaler and I would feel so out of place when the others drank that it became a disadvantage for me. I my book – Bound to Rise, I share that professional growth is a marathon race, not a sprint. Professionals who want to build in a hurry will fail. If were to write to epitaph about your life, it is not your net worth that defines you. It is what you have done for others and what you stood for that matters. There is a school of thought which says you should never trust anyone every time you engage. If you do so, you are wasting your time. If you let others make you hurt and live in fear it won’t help. Learn to live with joy.
5. Based on your observations and learning who according to you is a personal brand? What characteristics do you admire about them?
I was fortunate to work for some of the finest leaders. They made a profound impact on me at the right time. For example, the Acer Marcom Head, Rajendran who joined us from IIM Calcutta. I was intimidated initially but he turned out to be the paragon of humility – more than anyone I knew. He shattered all the stereotypes I had. It showed me that you can be comfortable in your owns skin and run the race at your own pace. Others include Rajesh Hukku and R. Ravishankar who were leaders at i-flex solutions. It is about how they made you feel as individuals. It is about the alignment with the Say-Do ratio in their public and private lives. There are leaders out there who have live different realities. If there is a huge gap in this image, they will not be successful. They will sooner than later get exposed and get knocked off the perch. Rajat Gupta is an example. You can see how his career ended in ignominy and shame. It matters to have integrity and be a genuine human being. Life is meant to worked forward and live backwards. The mindless pursuit of success doesn’t lead anywhere. The question to ask is – how personally satisfied are you? People always think – I wish I could have done more. The point is – did you do well enough considering the resources you had?
6. What challenges did you face while building a personal brand? What techniques did you use to overcome them?
I wanted to be a brilliant communicator. I struggled with low self-esteem. I needed to leapfrog over others who were way ahead of my grasp of the language among others.
To be the best I felt I needed to bridge the gap in learning. How do I write better? How do I speak better? I used to get mixed up with words since I didn’t have the necessary grounding.
I didn’t have access to books and libraries. I joined a young orators club at a fancy place and felt out of league. However, I persisted. I was beaten and battered for my knowledge and language. Not a nice experience I would say. I went through the crucible and came out with solid learning. Opportunities come like that. I was later in life able to play the role of a Master of Ceremonies and compere for the CEO when most others couldn’t. I never know when these skills would come in handy.
7. What did you gain in the process? What did you lose?
I gained a lot more than I lost. I gained the ability to be a professional. My manic commitment for self-development helped me live by my mission – to transform the world through my communication skills. I knew it had to be global. I traveled and made an immigrant path for myself. By God’s Grace, I wrote a book and am a TedX speaker. If you are an immigrant, you can be caught in a no-man’s land. My children will get a better platform. I feel I missed out on the India opportunities. On the personal side – I missed my India-based family – my parents and relatives for example. It is a price you pay for the opportunities you get elsewhere. I am very family oriented and want my family to thrive. Nowadays, watching the growth of India from the sidelines is exciting.
8. How can someone starting from scratch build a personal brand? What is the first step he or she must take?
My teenage son and I have this discussion on what do we stand for. For me it is about liberty, equality and justice. You need to ask yourself – what values do you believe in. If you stand for social justice you can’t be far from it. Journalism in India there wasn’t enough money during my time, however the world is opening up for. Ask – what is the reason for your being? Why are you here? If you don’t believe in God, then what is the single largest impact on the planet you want to make? It is hard to teach our own children these lessons. You need to be analytical. If need a job to get free expression. But, how do you express your thoughts? What are the right words for the right occasion? Language is to express not impress. Another piece of advice – be detail oriented.
9. If you had the opportunity to change something about the way you built your personal brand, what would that be?
In the early 20’s and 30’s, I was restless and super energetic, and I was impatient. When work suffered, it got escalated. if you don’t pay attention, word reaches your boss’s boss and the chain of escalation can create stress. I learnt later that if you escalate, you have lost trust. Get your job the done, without feeling embarrassed. Can you influence and get work done when priorities may not be the same for the other people involved? You need to be persuasive and empathetic. Likewise, when it comes to networking people think of Linkedin. You build a network before you need it like you dig a well before you are thirsty. Just because you have a connection, does not mean it is a relationship. It is not a node; it is probably an influencer. How often do you give back? How often do you reciprocate and invest in your network?
10. What is your recipe for personal branding success?
One who is genuine in all the spheres of life and has little deviance in what the person says and does is the one who can build a personal brand. My advice is: be yourself – ruthless and honestly. You may have barely known your inner circle and barely met them. I feel joy in meeting old professors and students.
11. With COVID19 and other crises what steps can personal brands take?
I did a panel discussion in Bengaluru recently on a related subject. I shared that you can’t change your persona and wear a mask. Those who were on the track of getting ‘success at any cost’ need to put their plans on pause. There is a need to focus on giving back and doing good.
12. What’s your advice for youngsters (Gen Z and others) who want to consider their personal brands?
This generation has no filters in the way they communicate. They need to understand that social media is not the reality. It is a bubble they are living in and must get out of it. If they want a personal brand, they need to get off social media. Spend time to get a sense of who they are and appreciate the power of influencers who are well positioned to understand social media. Other part of life is the harsh reality.
Liked this interview? Please do share your feedback and comments.
Keen to get ahead with your personal brand? Here are some resources:
- Take a FREE assessment on personal branding.
- Refer to the 3C model on Personal Branding
- Sign up for a 60-minute personalized chat on personal branding
- Personal branding for corporate communicators
Missed the earlier episodes? Read the interviews with Muqbil Ahmar, Tinu Cherian Abraham, Joseph Fernandez, Christina Daniels,Karthik Srinivasan,Gautam Ghosh, Alexander Michael Gittens, Mubeen Azeez, ItzikAmiel, Mangal D Karnad, Abhijit Bhaduri, Sandeep K Krishnan PhD and Scott Shirai online and share your thoughts.