Where did Adidas go wrong? That question has surely been bandied about at the sports behemoth since its epic split from the artist formerly known as Kanye West. According to Time, parting ways after West made reprehensible comments will cost Adidas in the neighborhood of $250 million. The decision to cut ties was a necessary expense, and it should nudge all of us to ask ourselves how our associations are affecting our personal brands.
It’s no secret that we define ourselves (at least partly) by the company we keep. For instance, if your friend only hangs out with party people, you’re going to assume your friend’s a partier. Likewise, if a job candidate’s social media pages are filled to the brim with pictures of her with her college friends sporting their alma mater gear, you can be sure she’s a huge fan of her chosen college—and probably had an overwhelmingly positive experience there.
From a professional standpoint, every partner you associate with could potentially be either an asset or a liability. As shown with Adidas, a bad relationship can be costly and embarrassing. What a contrast to Nike’s partnership with Serena Williams. It’s been a long-lasting and positive exchange, which resulted in demand for products and mutually beneficial branding. Tanya Hvizdak, who is VP of Global Women’s Sports Marketing for Nike, has even said that the sponsorship exceeded all expectations. It’s a “here to stay” commitment between a legacy corporation and a legacy athlete.
On a much smaller scale, without advertising budgets to tally, how can you avoid the Wests and embrace the Williamses of the world when it comes to developing your own circles of influence? Simple: it’s called the vetting process. In fact, before boldly moving forward with anyone as your mentor, your business partner, or even a client, you should take a few proactive steps.
1. Find out what your potential partners value.
You should know what matters most to you. A deep dive required to unearth your personal brand traits is the key in that quest. You should put the results on paper as a series of personal mission, vision, and purpose statements. These statements can be short and bulleted. However, they need to be precise.
Having your value statements in front of you helps you avoid getting mixed up with a partner who doesn’t reflect what you believe. That can extend to your clients, too. Devin O’Loughlin, Global Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Communications Officer at marketing agency RAPP, notes that her company’s commitment to DE&I is so strong that it has become a good way to evaluate potential customers.
“Because we’re building a strong DE&I practice within RAPP, focusing on our people, our culture, and our work, we thought it critical to ensure the clients we’re bringing into our portfolio align with our beliefs and agenda,” says O’Loughlin. “We ask about their DE&I discipline and team, facets of their culture, like ERGs and community outreach and the DE&I-focused strategy and acumen. The information gleaned … enables us to best understand how we both might be able to partner with them.”
It may be challenging at first to figure out the values of those you surround yourself with. Over time, the process should become easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for others’ personal mission statements. Just be prepared to help them understand how to write theirs if they haven’t already.
2. Reduce your reliance on misaligned partners.
Sometimes, partner misalignment is obvious, as it was for Adidas. Yet misalignment can be subtle, too. For example, a partner who once seemed very much in sync with what you believe and care about may one day go down a different path. While this can be natural, it may leave you feeling that your partnership no longer positively affects your personal branding aspirations.
You don’t have to immediately or abruptly break all communication with partners when you start to drift apart in terms of what you value. Nevertheless, you may want to pull back on your reliance on those partners. That way, you’ll be less apt to start drifting in a direction you don’t want to go.
Let’s say your former boss became your coach and mentor. At first, you gleaned a lot from the relationship. Now, though, you’re feeling like the advice you’re getting doesn’t dovetail with your goals or beliefs. It might be a sign that you need to initiate a “break up,” according to SUCCESS editors Julien Saunders and Kiersten Saunders. Otherwise, you could find yourself associated with someone who no longer speaks the same career path language as you.
O’Loughlin observes, “For RAPP, we’re really trying to practice what we preach—so ensuring potential clients are making an effort to engage diverse suppliers and push for representation in their workforce is key, as an example. What won’t you budge on, when it comes to who/what you want to be aligned with? You are the company you keep, as they say.”
The process may be tricky, but the Saunderses have some ways to make it less awkward. “If your mentor seems oblivious to the problems, then ask them for a meeting. Explain the ways they’ve helped you to grow and that you’re ready to pursue new opportunities. … Hopefully you’ve developed enough trust in each other to keep the conversation calm and polite.”
3. Keep reassessing your own values.
Personal growth happens. As we move through various ages, stages, and life experiences, we evolve. Sometimes, that evolution causes a bend or shift in our personal brand. Perhaps 15 years ago, you were extremely driven to make money. Your brand was all about growth hacking and scaling up startups to make fast exits. Accordingly, you surrounded yourself with people who were equally as excited to drive profits as their main focus.
Now, though, you’ve been through the pandemic and came out with a new viewpoint. You were able to see the benefit of showing and receiving compassion and empathy. Your epiphany has led you to put the brakes on your motivation to earn money and turned you into a firm believer in the importance of developing emotional intelligence as a leader.
Obviously, your core brand traits evolved, so your network should too. You would want to start making connections with different partners and collaborators. You might want to launch a podcast with someone who’s like-minded to discuss your transformation and what you’ve learned. Or you could open a business that concentrates on slow and steady growth over get-rich-quick tactics.
The point is that you may need to re-vet associates from time to time. It’s all a part of life, especially if you’re a lifelong learner.
In a world where influencer marketing is the trend, it’s easy to think that popularity and number of followers should be the main criteria for inviting people into your network. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For effective personal branding, your values—and the values of the people in your orbit—are your most valuable guides.