Personal Branding for Generalists: An Interview with Dan Schawbel

Branding is easy
–when you have a niche. I found this out while working on my own brand. I’m a generalist, and, as a freelancer, am the face of my own business. So I need a personal brand that reflects my generalist work.

I had no idea where to start. While scouring the Web for tips, I ran across Dan Schawbel, who runs a blog, wrote a book, publishes a magazine, and consults on–you guessed it–personal branding.

I sought out Dan’s help by asking whether he’d be interested in doing an interview with BP. He was. Here’s what he has to say. I hope it benefits you, too.


1. BP: A generalist, by nature, doesn’t have a single specialty around which to build a brand. So what does a generalist need to focus on when branding his/her company? Do they focus on a strength not directly related to their services, like good communication, and build out from there?

DS: It depends on your current situation and future goals. I typically recommend that people should be both generalists and specialists if they work for a company. The reason is because if the area that you’re a specialist in isn’t as relevant or value to your company, you may get laid off. If you’re a generalist, then you might be protected because you know other areas of the business and can take a new position in your company. If you’re only a specialist, then you get pigeonholed and therefore it’s possible that you can be exiled completely.

If you’re a consultant, being a specialist is required because you need to be the go-to-person for a specific expertise area or skill. If you aren’t, you won’t be found, it will be hard to grow your client base and establishing a personal brand will be nearly impossible. If you’re an entrepreneur, then being a generalist is imperative because you need to know all aspects of your business, at least at first, in order to get anywhere.

Getting back to your question. A generalist needs to focus on his or her strengths, which is typically not everything. If you really narrow down your skills, you’ll notice that you’re probably better in one area than another. I’m a much better communicator than I am a mathematician. You might be better at accounting than you are at finance. When you figure out your specialty within your generalist role, you should acquire support in the other areas because you can’t focus on everything and be successful. You want to focus on a strength that is related to your services so you can spend more time on it and bring more value to your company and/or your customers.

2. BP: How does a generalist know what to emphasize when building a brand?

DS: In your generalist role, you need to pull out skills that you are most proud of. You should emphasize your unique abilities that help differentiate you from everyone else. Don’t think that you don’t have these qualities and/or skills because you do. You have to really know yourself and what your strengths are before you brand yourself both online and offline. It’s so important that you take the time to really hone in on your differentiation because otherwise your generalist role won’t amount to much in the minds of your audience.

3. BP: What, if anything, does a generalist have to give up to create a unified brand?

DS: A generalist needs to come to grips that they aren’t the best at everything and that they need support. A unified corporate brand is one that has top talent in a range of fields, coming together for a certain mission, as created by the CEO/founder. Generalists need to link up with specialists within their organization because their skills aren’t perfect in every area. Specialists spend years building up their expertise, while generalists float around. The combination of the two is powerful.

4. BP: Do other aspects of the generalist’s presentation, like motto, logo, etc. need to be emphasized to make up for a lack of specialization? Or are there other solutions for the generalist, like just setting up different companies for each specialty?

DS: It depends what your role is: consultant, entrepreneur or employee. If you’re a consultant, then a distinct presentation, motto, logo, website, blog, social network profiles, business card, mission, etc, is mandatory. If you’re an entrepreneur, then your focus should be split, branding both yourself and your company, which more emphasis on your company. If you work for a company, then you might want to take on a consultant-type role outside of your company by establishing your specialization, when you are in fact a generalist at work.

If you’re a generalist, it will be impossible to stand out, so you have to take a niche or specialized role when positioning yourself. If you have 5 specialties, I can guarantee that one or two of them you’re stronger in than the others.

Less is more when specializing and setting up companies, at least in the beginning of your career/business.

Dan Schawbel is the leading personal branding expert for Gen-Y. He is the bestselling author of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success (Kaplan, April 09), as well as the publisher of both the award winning Personal Branding Blog and Personal Branding Magazine.

Written by Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.