Elon Musk has never worried about his personal brand but built his expertise in technology and trying to do impossible things.
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As a person who has worked with and helped build some of the best brands in the world, including as a co-founder, a billion-dollar marketing agency, I must admit, the first time I heard the words “personal branding,” I did not know what they meant. I do know this. Building your personal brand without the underlying expertise is a recipe for disaster. A better question might be: Are you building a personality or a brand? If you are an expert, you don’t need to tell people that you are an expert. They know based on what you say, what you are doing and what you have done. Why become an expert before building a personal brand?

Becoming an expert takes hard work but really pays off. Let me give you my example. When I started my career, I did not understand marketing or branding but learned marketing in my first job. Over the next five years, I moved up progressively in the agency until I started doing some strategic branding with clients. That led to more and bigger opportunities and then PR coverage by the press. At that time, I was not trying to build my brand but my expertise. Ultimately, they merged where I arrived at a place where my brand “reputation” and expertise became one. And that afforded me more opportunities in my career and life.

So, not sure about personal branding but if you want to become an expert who gets rewarded with choices, do the following.

Specific expertise target. It does not really matter what you do as long as you decide you want to be really good at that. It could be accounting, marketing, finance, graphic design. The key is to go deeper into a key area in your discipline which will be very important in the future. So for marketing, it’s data analytics or content marketing.

Specific expertise goals. In order to become an expert in a given area, you need to go deeper in your discipline than others might go. People who have a “mile wide of knowledge but only one inch of depth” are awesome but they will not become experts. Set very specific quarterly goals that get you closer to being an expert in your field.

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Elevate your practice. You know the saying “practice makes perfect?” Ignore that. You can’t become an expert by just practicing what you already do and know. You have to go deeper, take risks and seek out people who are out on the edge of an expertise. For example, when people first saw smartphones, some technology folks said the real future was in applications. Early adopter experts talked about, used and predicted applications for years before the medium became popular. When it did, they were the real experts.

Acquire deep knowledge. Years ago, when SEO (Search Engine Optimization) became important to search on the Internet, some people learned just enough to do their marketing job. Others went way deeper, attended conferences, threw up SEO’d websites on a weekend to see what would happen, hung out with software coders and graphic artists and learned the second and third layer of SEO. They become the experts who we then listened to at future conferences, they wrote the books, they started next generation marketing agencies and so on. Deep knowledge in a future trend, skill or tool can be highly rewarded.

Mentor and feedback. It’s hard to become an expert without relying on mentors and advisors. In Lord of the Rings, do we really think Frodo would have delivered the ring without Gandalf? You could probably do it without them but you are at risk for taking longer and potentially making career limiting mistakes. Getting feedback on what you are doing well, and not so well, is priceless. Especially from someone who actually cares about you. 

Constant progression. If you want to be an expert over an extended period of time, you need to be relevant. In other words, once you become an expert, you still need to evolve and grow in order to maintain your expertise. How many times have you heard this, “He/she used to be good but not any more. They just don’t know what’s going on today.” Evolve and progress if you want to maintain your expertise.

Welcome to the edge. You know you have become an expert, not when you say so, but when others say so. The first time I spoke at a marketing conference, it sounded surreal to be introduced as a leading marketer in the world. I thought, “Are they talking about me?” It was not because I had built my brand. I had built a deep expertise in integrated marketing, digital marketing and layered on top, strategic branding. As an expert, you have a responsibility of not telling people how great you are but sharing insights and knowledge about what you see coming next in your field of expertise. Take the responsibility seriously.