“The birth of our company may have been a dream, but there were days, weeks, and even months early on that felt more like a nightmare. We couldn’t get a loan from a bank. We couldn’t hire the right people. We couldn’t manage our cash flow very well. We nearly missed payroll several times. We brought arguments from home to work, and we brought arguments from work to home.”
When I wrote that blog post and shared it on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, it was four years into the start of our first company. We had a growing staff of about twenty employees, and I remember one of our management team members approaching me just after I published the post. She said, “Dave, don’t you think the post is a little, well, raw? Do you really want potential clients seeing how close we were to going under? Don’t you think it might turn people off to share so personally about your business?”
I thought about it a bit and then replied, “You could very well be right. Let’s call them up and ask them.”
We called a few of our larger clients, sent them the post, and asked for their feedback. I was getting nervous. Although intuitively I believed that we’d be fine, my employee’s concern had me increasingly worried. Then an email from our largest client came in.
“Wow, this is great,” it read. “Do you mind if I share the article with other people?”
“Of course!” I replied. “That’s what it’s there for. Feel free to share, and thanks for your feedback.”
The positive feedback continued as more and more emails began to roll in. It seemed that our current clients didn’t have any problem with my candid description of the company’s rocky start. But then something happened that really surprised me.
We got a referral. A new, major client.
“I’d like to set up a call to talk about a new project we’d like your help on,” the email read. “I appreciated your honestly and vulnerability in the article your client Elana forwarded to me. Look forward to talking.”
Unbelievable! Not only had we not upset our clients with that honest, vulnerable piece, we actually had attracted a new client. I went back to the employee who had shown concern that the post would do have the opposite effect.
“Thank you for being honest with me about your concern,” I said. “So what do you think ended up working about the piece?”
“It was risky,” she replied. “But that’s the whole thing. By taking a risk and sharing your true thoughts and feelings, you connected with people at a deeper level, and that’s exactly what worked. Authenticity. Even vulnerability,” she concluded.
She was right. As it turns out, as scary and impersonal as the Internet and blogging may feel, it’s your ability to be your honest, vulnerable, unique self that provides the biggest opportunity to stand out. There are over 100 million blogs in the world, but there’s just one that has the distinct, unique voice that you have: yours.
Could it have gone the other way? Could people have been turned off by that blog post and chosen not to do business with us? Of course. (Heck, that may have happened. I’ll never know.)
But the bottom line is that that post reflected the real me for better or for worse, and I probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with customers who couldn’t appreciate me for who I was, anyway.
That brings me to the larger point: Who you are online is who you are in life and vice versa. There is no need to have a different writing style for your professional blog, a different voice for your professional Twitter feed, or separate social media profiles for your personal life and your professional life. Why? Because “business you” and “personal you” are the exact same person. Or they can be. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself trying to manage split personalities and double lives, which is tiring, unnecessary, and ineffective. Imagine logging in and out of different Facebook profiles all day, for instance, to keep up a Chinese wall between personal friends and work friends. Or every time you feel like sending a tweet having to double-check which account you’re tweeting from. Too difficult, I say. It’s much easier to be the authentic you all the time.
Some people have two very public personalities; others prefer to keep semiprivate online identities, carefully curating their digital selves and handpicking who sees what. But those aren’t their actual identities; those are masks they wear, and they aren’t fooling anyone.
Most business books and career counselors will advise you to guard tightly anything personal about yourself online for fear that it will be seen by potential employers or recruiters and harm your professional prospects. But let’s be serious: We all have our lives outside work, and if I’m hiring someone, I want to see that he’s a real person, with friends and family and a personal life; otherwise the only two conclusions are that that person is a robot or that she has something to hide. I’d go so far as to say that if two equally qualified job applicants were placed in front of me, one with a completely open Facebook profile with drunk photos displayed for the whole world to see and the other with a blocked account, I would choose the open one. The type of person I want working for me is the type of person who is willing to share her true self with others.
That means people like Aliza Licht, senior vice president of global communications at Donna Karan New York, who is exactly the same online as she is in real life. With hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, she still considers each member of her audience a friend, reading all tweets and responding to most consistently in her own voice. Her Twitter feed offers an honest glimpse into her life and career, sharing photos from shoots, personal anecdotes, and thoughtful advice. And she doesn’t draw the line between her career and her personal life. This practice has allowed her to rise to the top of the public relations industry and gained DKNY a winning reputation for its connectedness to its customers and the customers’ brand loyalty.
Social media provide a great opportunity to display authenticity and gain credibility, particularly for business leaders. In fact, in a recent survey, 82 percent of the respondents reported that they are more likely to trust a brand when the senior leadership and CEO are using social media. Today’s connected consumers look to social media to determine who companies are and what they stand for. But just being on social media isn’t enough; you must use those channels correctly, and that starts with being authentically who you are.
Dennis Crowley, cofounder and CEO of the location-based social network Foursquare, is a prime example. An employee of mine once checked into Foursquare from her favorite trivia night bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and in her tweet to @Dens (his Twitter handle) gave Crowley a shout-out for fixing the Foursquare servers, which had been down earlier that day. Not only did Crowley respond to her personally, he mentioned that he lived in the area, recommended a few other bars for her trivia team to check out, and even gave her his address (around Eighth Street and Avenue B in case you’re curious). Although I’m certainly not recommending that you tweet your Social Security number, Crowley’s demonstration of trust and openness holds a valuable lesson: When you reveal personal information, you instantly become personable.
As you develop your online persona, be sure to convey your in-real-life self in your digital presence. Rather than trying to create boundaries between personal and professional and online and offline, learn to harmonize them. Find and share your authentic voice.
Years later, I still write about and share the good times and the bad online. It may not always be pretty, but it’s always real, and the world will always appreciate the real you.
FAST First Action Steps to Take:
1. Write down a list of your online social profiles: social networks, blogs, anywhere you appear online. Do an “authenticity audit”: Look at each profile and determine how authentic and vulnerable you’re being on it.
2. Think about how you can increase your authenticity and experiment with sharing more of your real self online.
3. Write down a story about a mistake you once made and the lesson you learned from it. Consider posting it on your Facebook wall, your blog, or LinkedIn.
Above was an excerpt from my new book The Art of People: 11 Simple People Skills That Will Get You Everything You Want, out now. Like what you're reading so far? Order your copy today!