Branding Yourself as a Product

A grandfather clock or a watch.

Those are the symbols of career longevity I remember from my youth. You’d work for one company your entire career, and when you retired, you’d receive some sort of timepiece as a farewell gift. 

My first real job out of college was with Fujitsu, a $50 billion company. I thought I’d be there for 35 or 40 years. I figured I’d get my clock.

It was a great company and I did spend five years of my career there. Unfortunately, in 2001 as the dot-com boom went bust, Fujitsu, for the first time in the company’s history, lost money. As a result, the company closed any business unit that wasn’t in excess of $500 million in revenue. I was working for a highly profitable division, but its revenue was just $250 million. We were one of the casualties.

Despite my shock, it was probably one of the greatest gifts of my early career, because that’s when I realized that jobs are not guaranteed. It doesn’t matter how big the company is; it doesn’t matter how stable or profitable it is. Your job simply doesn’t come with a guarantee anymore. And that means having to manage your career in a completely different way than previous generations.

This change in the labor force isn’t just anecdotal. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of a U.S. worker in his or her job is 4.2 years. The average American will hold 11.7 jobs by the time he or she is 48.

What does this mean? It means you will be interviewing for many jobs. So you will need to keep your skills fresh and nurture your relationships. Moreover, you and your skills should be transferable to different environments. Put another way: Your personal brand is more important than ever.  You are a product. And if you are the product, why not manage your personal brand like a product? 

Your Career and the Product Lifecycle

In a typical career lifecycle, you start with a deficit. When you finish college, you have some tools, but you lack real-world, hands-on experience. Then, as you gain expertise, your responsibilities increase and your success grows.

Just like in a product lifecycle, though, there will be times when your industry and technology evolve. If you don’t evolve too, you risk a career plateau and irrelevance. The key is to create long-term extensibility for your brand. What you need is a product strategy. How do you leverage your skills to ensure a triumphant product launch and continued relevancy and success? 

Launching: Version 1.0

Before you can manage your product, you have to launch it. When you graduate from college or business school, you don’t know exactly where your career will go. But you should still build a roadmap that answers this question: Where do you plan to be in two years, five years, 10 years? Sure, you might take a detour somewhere in the future, but start with a plan that moves you in the general direction of your ultimate target. 

Put yourself on the right path by the way you leverage your assets, degrees and experiences. More often than not, relationships will be key. Carefully develop and cultivate your LinkedIn network, engage in industry networking groups and talk to people in the industry. After all, 78 percent of recruiters find their candidates through referrals.

In addition to connecting to people in your industry and with those who share your interests, Google yourself. We are in the age of the internet, and just as you need to know how a product is perceived online, you should know how you are representing yourself in the marketplace.

Jobvite, a recruiting website, conducts an annual survey of recruiters and HR professionals. And they’ve discovered that some things in the public domain put you at a real disadvantage. For example, a host of spelling and grammatical errors in your posts or your tweets doesn’t bode well for you. Likewise, if you can be seen drinking alcohol in multiple photos posted, that doesn’t reflect well either (though it’s not as bad as your grammar errors). On the other hand, participating in local and national organizations and groups that are relevant to your industry reflects positively on you.

Continuously Market

Once you have that successful first or second job, then what? As you embark on version 3.0 and 4.0 and onward, you have to ensure you don’t fall off the roadmap, that you continually leverage your skills and stay relevant.

And you must regularly refresh your career roadmap, just as you would for a product. Identify challenges or new interests that may make you reconsider your target destination.

Of course, to ensure you’re intelligently reacting to market changes, you continually have to be in the market. Take every chance you get to talk with your customers, peers, executives or industry thought leaders. Ask for their thoughts on the industry. What training do people seek? What skills do you need to brush up on to be current with your industry?

You don’t wait to iterate your product until you see a dramatic fall in sales, right? Likewise, be sure you continually hone yourself as the product, changing and adjusting your roadmap throughout your career.

Spend at least three hours a week fostering your career. Read an industry article, go to lunch with a colleague or reach out to somebody in your network who hasn’t heard from you in a long time. If a colleague has had a promotion or an anniversary (which you can see on LinkedIn), send them a note. When you do need a job, people will be more willing to help you if you’ve been talking to them along the way, rather than just when you need something.


Ongoing Skills Assessment

To help you achieve your goals, continually assess your skills. Start with a competitive assessment of you as the product. What skills do you currently have? What skills do you lack? What skills are evolving in your marketplace? What additional skills might you need to acquire? Then, devise a strategy for how to foster and develop those skills. That should be part of your roadmap. 

And remember, it’s not enough to have only great technical skills. Pragmatic Institute conducts an annual survey of product leaders, and one of the top things we hear is that soft skills matter, too. The top seven soft skills we hear about are abilities to: 

  • Inspire others
  • Synthesize information
  • Build consensus
  • Communicate truthfully
  • Debate and negotiate
  • Express empathy
  • Pitch to peers, executives and customers

Make sure you don’t neglect this aspect of your career development.

Your Distinctive Competency

Lastly, think about your distinctive competencies—your competitive advantage in the marketplace. How do you differentiate yourself? Do you have specific experiences or skills other candidates might not have? How do you highlight those? 

You need to recognize and be able to articulate how you can uniquely solve an employer’s problem. In other words, what’s your elevator pitch? This short statement encapsulates your competitive advantage as it relates to increasing the success of the organization. If you can’t distill that into a sentence or two, it’s time to get to work. Just like you’d write a product statement, spend time crafting your competitive advantage.

You As the Product

As you consider your career and where you aspire to go professionally, your product management skills are an asset. From your product launch to managing the lifecycle to avoiding irrelevance, you can ensure continued success in the marketplace via the strategy (or combination of strategies) of your choice. When you are the product, success is a long, fulfilling career—without a timepiece in sight. 

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Kirsten Butzow

Kirsten Butzow

Kirsten Butzow has 20 years of experience at leading technology companies, including Fujitsu, Pearson and most recently Blackboard. She has held vice president roles for the past 10 years, allowing her to bring a strong executive perspective to her role as a Pragmatic Institute instructor. She has directed product management portfolios, created business plans and strategic product roadmaps and implemented many aspects of the Pragmatic Institute Framework. She brings this firsthand experience to every course she teaches.

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