Are They Respecting You Or Your Title?
When I entered Holt Renfrew with my bespoke suit and Swiss watch, I received a certain level of service. It never replicated when I returned in a v-neck shirt and shorts as the same person.
The Literal Suit.
In Korea, when government officials or even executives of large corporations lose their position, it's said that they are "taking their clothes off". Implied in this figure of speech is that the title and employer brand you have is representative of the clothes you wear.
For some people that wear uniforms it's quite literal. For the many where it's a figurative, it too can possess a literal meaning in regards to our identity.
We grow up identifying with the suit we wear and title we hold. When we meet people we ask them "what do you do".
It translates to: "Tell me where you work and your title so I can subconsciously label you to a social standard I grew up with".
We consequently respond with the title and brand instead of describing how we spend our time. When have you seen an investment banker tell someone "I copy and paste excel cells really quickly and check PowerPoint slides for punctuation so big companies can buy other companies."?
But it's what we are told to gun for when we are young. The big brands. Now there are all kinds of benefits that cannot be denied if you work in these top notch places. The learning opportunities, the smart people you meet, you name it. Our social circle starts to place greater emphasis on the prestige of these brands and once we feel the allure of how we are treated once people who about it, we rely on it.
The Investor In The Suit.
When I was in the investing world, I got a lot of emails from aspiring investors. Though I get similar amounts of emails now, this was not the case last year when I went off on my journey of building OMD Ventures.
Back then, most emails were from business grads who wanted to get into the investing realm. A common question I asked these aspiring investors was whether they 1) truly loved investing or 2) loved the idea of being an investor. They are two completely different things. Very few fit in the first bucket. Even if they end up fitting into the small first bucket, it can be a grueling life-long journey of discovering the kind of investor you are meant to be.
Most fit into the second bucket. They purely want the idea of being an investor because of all the external 'pzazz' associated with it (whether it's from the media or social group). I do not exaggerate on the power and clout of having the investor title. Especially when you represent a fund that manages billions of dollars. Whenever I would meet people in all kinds of occasions, when they learned of my title and what I did they approached me differently, looked at me differently, and treated me differently.
When I was an accountant trying to get hold of investment banks no one had replied to my email. Now, I had the VPs of the world's top investment banks giving me their business cards personally. Even as a management consultant I had never interacted with C-suite individuals (despite how often consultants would dangle that carrot in student recruiting events). But as an investor, I was speaking one-on-one with CEOs of billion dollar companies throughout the world.
What You Think You Represent vs. What Others Believe You Represent.
What is not obvious, at least it wasn't for me, is the difference between "Extrinsic You = Firm Brand+Title Brand" vs. " Intrinsic You = Your Brand".
There is no question that it takes a lot of hard work to be in these prestigious firms with prestigious titles. With such prestige comes the full package of envy from peers, the preferential treatment from folks in the industry etc... I'm only talking about the emotional benefits but there are obviously all the tangible benefits too (i.e. fancy hotels, flights, nice office, assistants etc...).
It's easy to think that you earned all this. That the hard work you put into get your "seat" in the organization and the hours you spend doing your work all justify such benefits.
The reality is that none of it was meant for you or belonged to you. Aside from the true equity holders who actually have 'skin in the game' in regards to the consequences (positive and negative) of the firm, they are just loaning out to you all the prestige that comes with the brand for your time and effort.
That's it. Some will see this loan as part of investing in you as a person as you succeed in different ways while carrying their brand in your resume. For some it's just a loan until you cease to invest your time and effort that is commensurate of the loan they've given you.
Though you might have felt like this was such a big accomplishment and you are deserving of it all. To the firm, it's a mere piece of paper filed away. With a single signature the loan can be clawed back. Then all that is left is just "You".
Whether you leave the position willingly or you're forced out, either way, without the title and brand reality hits you.
The friends that wanted to grab coffees with you? They don't want to anymore.
The admiration for you at a social party? Nope. They don't care about you without the title and clout.
The executives and professionals you'd email and get replies from to build relationships with? No responses.
In one of Simon Sinek's talks (the 21:30min mark in this video), he tells the story of the undersecretary and the Styrofoam cup. To paraphrase, when the undersecretary spoke at the same conference last year he was greeted by town car from the airport, driven to the hotel, driven to the conference and while waiting he was handed a coffee in a nice ceramic cup. He is no longer the undersecretary and this year in the conference he took a cab from the airport, got himself to the conference and poured himself a coffee in a Styrofoam cup. All the perks, benefits and treatment he received last year were not because of who he was but the position he represented. He quoted "The ceramic cup was not meant for me, it was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup."
Relativity of Brands.
Growing up, people tell you how having big name brands help you in your career. It just very well might. But it all depends on what you do and where you play. I have three very prominent name brands under my name. But, my experience of transitioning to completely different career realms has revealed that most people don't care about the brands.
It's not a matter of neglect. The thing is, most people don't even know the brands. Even if they know it, they don't understand why it's "supposed" to be prestigious etc. The brand ceases to matter and all that is left is what you can do immediately.
There is no blind reliance on the brand anymore and you are then completely exposed for what you can and cannot do. What you actually know vs. what you say/think you know. This strips you of the security blanket you had and now you no longer have the crutch.
That brand goes from being "one person's treasure" to another person's garbage". Most people can't imagine going through that. To give up the title they had identified themselves with. You can even see if in people's LinkedIn profiles when they have their current title and "ex-consulting firm name".
But when you leave the titles behind you or go to a place where no one recognizes the brands, you learn to think back on what you truly represent. Who you truly are without the pomp and circumstance.
That's a long way of saying that the currency of the brand and title only matters if the other person is transacting in the same currency as you. Only, what if instead of using various fiat currencies of different industries, the only currency was trust in the underlying asset of you?
When They Respond To "You".
It honestly sucked to be stripped of all the prestige and glamour. But much like how a paycheck was a drug I needed rehabilitation from, it was the same for my own identity.
It will take longer and it will be so much harder but now, the people who reach out to me are people who see me wearing no one else's clothes but my own.
Now, when people respond to me, and give me their time and trust it's because of who I am. Not because of the company I represent but just my own brand.
Every one of these individuals are taking a risk giving time to someone without an established brand that formed over decades. Mine is just starting. But just like how every fashion brand and major professional services firm started as no one until their own name became a brand it's going to be so hard in the beginning... but there is no doubt that now when people respond its in response to who I am. Not what I'm supposed to represent to them.
There really isn't any advice here. It's just what I've gone through and felt. It's the path I'm continuing to go down and learn upon.
Like always, I hope this thought of mine adds a unique perspective to your own.