What a Personal Brand Can Do For You
The traditional career path is largely sequential and structured.
The trajectory of the average job is a linear one, and it will typically take you 10-12 years to be promoted into a role where you manage other people. On an individual level, the point at which you will exercise leadership is thus actually quite late – in your 30’s or 40’s.
However, if you start or join a nonprofit on the side, you open up the option of jumping straight to a leadership role. Not only do you have the autonomy to shape the capacity of your involvement to be as small or large as you are comfortable with, you’ll also be forced to think of yourself now as the leader. When you frame yourself as a leader, your personal growth will be exponential. From the types of skills you acquire to even the types of books you read – you’ll approach things very differently.
There’s also a monumental difference between being a leader in a corporation and in a nonprofit or volunteer-based society; the two types of leadership will demand different skills from you. Suppose you’re a director in a corporate entity. While people may disagree with your way of doing things, they also know that you’re the boss. People do what you tell them to do because you’re in charge: you have the power to give them their bonuses or fire them. Your employees will obey you, but they may not necessarily like or respect you. In my view, this is management, not leadership.
In a volunteer-run non-profit group, you’ll need to come from a different approach. Your volunteers only show up because they care about the mission, and nobody is obligated to do anything. In order to motivate the team to deliver results, you can’t offer bonuses or threaten punishments; you need to inspire them. This is a very different skill set that you’ll need to hone, where you’re able to successfully convince people to give up their free time, hit pause on Netflix, and use their free time and skills to work towards a cause that won’t give them financial gratification. That type of leadership skills are invaluable.
Ultimately, you hold the reigns and can design your leadership path based on the variables that matter to you. When I graduated from college, I joined a few of my friends in the newly-formed Debate Association (Singapore) as its Vice President. We had no real plan at the start, and we were all learning. When we got more comfortable, we realised we could take on a larger team and lead others. We started persuading other volunteers to join us to train students, run competitions, and do more.
Eventually, the few volunteers grew to hundreds of volunteers, which eventually reached out to thousands of students. I became the President, and we grew faster and bigger than we had ever dreamed; we were training the best student debaters to debate at international competitions (and our students ended up ranked top in the world!); we co-created a debate TV show that got nominated for an Emmy award; and most importantly - we made a positive difference to so many students. As a leader in that setting, I had to work with each volunteer to design a role that made sense for them, excite them about the potential impact we could have, and motivate them to do their best. We created our mission together. You won’t always have this kind of leeway in a corporate setting.
And taking on nonprofit responsibilities won’t be frowned upon by the organisation you’re working for full-time either, so there’s no hurdle from HR! From the company’s perspective, they’d love to have people on board who are able to corral teams and motivate them. When you bring your whole self to work, the organisation also benefits. You have a spark, you bring cross-sector insights, you are driven by a deeper purpose. When you bring your entire self to work, you enrich your life as well as those of the people who work with you.
Crafting Your Identity Intentionally
Many people get into volunteering in order to build their personal brand, which is a parallel conversation. The key is to be authentic. Make sure you’re building a community around a cause that you genuinely are passionate about. If you’re in it just to pad your CV, your volunteers will quickly smell a rat and walk away. On the other hand, if you’re able to get your volunteers excited and motivated to stay on, it’s a great sign that you have something of value to offer.
With running a nonprofit, you have the opportunity to build an identity that is separate from your professional identity – one you’re in full control of. With your professional identity, you likely won’t be able to have this level of control as to how you forge your path ahead. Your professional life, by and large, will be impacted by the vagaries of chance, promotions, or postings. This is far from ideal for most of us.
Conversely, your personal brand is entirely your own. If you’re a photographer who lives and breathes photography, why not choose to build a community around your passion and become known in those circles? Outline your goals going in. Do you want to be internationally renowned, or train other photographers? The beauty of this is that you can choose the direction in which you move, and scale up or down based on your other priorities in life. Need to shift your focus to family for a while? You can always just scale back. This kind of flexibility isn’t always an option professionally.
And this second identity of yours isn’t just a nice addition to your CV until you land your next job. Instead, it becomes your reputation that follows you, not the job you’re in.
Let’s say you’re a director in a prominent bank. You’ll have tons of people interested in your views or following you online because of your job title. They care less about what you have to say, and more about your insights based on that particular role. In a sense, you’re just a spokesperson for the bank, and the majority of those who follow you are interested in what the bank has to say. This is useful until you change jobs. You’re seen as your role, not as an individual.
Your personal identity, distinct from your professional life, is one that is deeply entwined with the things you care most about as an individual. Whether you’re a passionate photographer or a tech advocate, people will want to hear your personal views. You’ll be invited to talks to share your thoughts and experiences, and people will respect your opinion regardless of the official job title you hold.
Well, this is all well and good, but does it really add up to anything? The answer is a resounding yes. Let’s say you’re applying for a job alongside numerous other candidates. HR checks you out on Google, and what do they find? An interesting, awesome person who is worth talking to and definitely worth finding out more about. Your personal brand, when built well, can open doors to a much deeper conversation. When HR sees your online trail as being credible, thoughtful, and intelligent, you’ve already become an achiever in their eyes. You’re not just another applicant. You’re someone who is already successful who happens to be looking for a job, and that’s an entirely different dynamic.
Of course, there will be opportunities to monetise this personal brand of yours if that’s what you prefer. When you’ve gained enough momentum, you could pivot out of your current sector and transition to your passion full time. Even if you choose to stay in your current full-time job, the traction you build personally will come in handy. Not only will you open doors, but you’ll also widen your network and gain access to people and experiences that might have otherwise seemed like a reach.
I was recently on a panel with the General Manager of Microsoft and a VP at SMU, which ordinarily I wouldn’t have had the chance to do. Yet it was because of my nonprofit work in the space of innovation and tech advocacy, I was invited to share my views. This anecdote is an example of how being intentional about your passion will help you rub shoulders with cool people outside your work circles.
In terms of compliance, most companies in Singapore don’t take issues with their employees being involved in nonprofits. You might have to declare it to your HR department, but as long as you’re not earning a sideline income or making consistent revenue from your involvement, compliance shouldn’t stop you.
Putting Your Plan in Place
There was a time when I was the President of the Debate Association, in addition to developing and filming a TV show and writing a book, on top of my demanding day job. Surely I was either not sleeping at all, or my job was taking a hit as a result? Absolutely not.
The truth is, you can design your life in a way such that you sacrifice things that aren’t important in favour of pursuits that actually add value to yourself in the world. I, for example, have never watched Game of Thrones. I took the time I’d have spent watching eight seasons of the show, or even the Premier League for that matter, and used it to write my book or film the TV shows instead.
You give up certain things for other things. I’m not going to tell you that you can have it all; the reality is that you will have to make some trade offs.
But you don’t have to make your job one of the things you sideline to make room for your nonprofit work. At the end of the day, you owe it to your employer to perform the role you’ve been hired for. Indeed, some jobs are more demanding than others. Most jobs, however, do have ebbs and tides: there are periods of high intensity that will require you to work harder, and periods in which you have more room to breathe. Make use of these cycles to your advantage.
All jobs, however, should allow you to have a personal life outside of work. Now how you choose to spend your precious free time is up to you. Do you want to scroll through Instagram or binge watch a show on Netflix? I’d encourage you to spend time building up your passion that will shape your personal brand. Be conscious, and don’t let time slip away from you.
Calendar Your Life
You can improve your time management by being meticulous about scheduling. I calendar parts of life that people don’t typically calendar.
For instance, you could block off a set amount of time on your calendar every week to do very clear and specific tasks. Really go into the details. When I was writing my book, I would schedule in blocks of time for specific tasks – researching material for the third chapter. Tell yourself what you want to achieve during that block of time in the calendar item itself, just as you would for work.
Strangely enough, people who watch Game of Thrones also block off time on their calendars where they’ll watch the latest episode. Why not be just as intentional about your hobbies? Every Saturday morning, for two hours, put down some time to take photos in the marshlands because you want to be a great wildlife photographer. Planning is an important foundation to building consistency, which will help you achieve the milestones that matter to you in the long term.
Take a leaf out of an athlete’s book when it comes to time management and discipline. Even recreational athletes require structure and planning to keep them going. They don’t simply wake up one morning and decide to run a full marathon of 42km. They’d need to structure their training plans, nutrition, and incrementally work towards their goals.
If you’re not structuring the way you build up your nonprofit or passion project, you won’t be able to know whether you are moving forwards towards your goal or stagnating.
Find Your Tribe
When looking for volunteers, start with your friends. Running a nonprofit requires a tremendous amount of trust in each other. This kind of trust is difficult to build with strangers, even those who are united around a shared cause. When you have an existing relationship with somebody, however, trust is easier to establish. Also, these are people you’d want to invest your time in anyway. This makes it easier to blend your personal time with “working” time. Why not just talk about your nonprofit over your weekly beer? Most of my best friends were with me in the debate society, and I even ended up marrying someone I volunteered with there!
As your organisation grows, you will need to expand beyond your friends’ circle. But instead of recruiting strangers, get your friends to rope in their friends. Trust becomes translative, and a thread that connects all of you. This is a healthy and sustainable way to grow your team initially.
You should also be very clear as to what everyone is in it for. Particularly for nonprofit groups, every person will have their own unique motivation for showing up. Of course, everyone broadly agrees on the mission upon which the society was founded. However, the ‘why’ will vary significantly from person to person. Knowing each other’s ‘whys’ will help you leverage people's strengths more effectively.
Big Picture Impact
I see all of my hobbies as progressing with a coherent theme. I started off in school as a debater, and eventually wanted to come back and share what I had learned with others. I felt that it was unfair for only the top schools in Singapore to get debate training, and wanted to bring it to all the other schools. So I got together with a group of friends who had already started something up, and we chatted with some other schools who were interested in working with us. Debate training became the first cause I was involved with, working with students across Singapore.
As technology advanced I realised that these face-to-face interactions could be scaled by moving them online. I also noticed that while people were being more respectful in debates in real life, online debates were cesspools of negativity and hatred. So how could I help people better debate online? I built a few basic tools around 2007, but got serious about it in 2014.
Dialectic.sg, the first volunteer-run non-profit that I started, was my answer to this question. It was a policy discussion platform that taught people how to debate online. When it seemed like we were chipping away at the problem of online vitriol, the issue of fake news came about. People were unable to debate effectively because they weren’t able to discern real happenings from fake news. I then wondered how I could help debaters make that distinction. I then built Confirm.sg to educate people on fake news.
At this point, I took a step back and looked at what we had done thus far. When I put Dialectic.sg and Confirm.sg together, I realised that we’d applied technology in an unconventional way to solve social issues, in this case, relating to online discourse. That spirit of solving problems innovatively with technology and putting your talents to good use evolved into Better.sg, which is a tech-for-good initiative. In my mind, it's actually a fairly congruent path.
What are the areas you care about and are skilled in? It’s up to you to connect the dots meaningfully such that you can solve problems and make a difference while you’re at it.
The important thing to constantly evaluate is your own authenticity. If people sense that you’re doing a bunch of random things that don’t feed into each other, you run the risk of being perceived as someone with no substance. Given the fact that you’ll need to make trade offs in order to work towards this project, it’s crucial to know that it will be worth your while.
Some of my various pursuits were resounding successes, but others were utter failures. Yet not once do I regret the time I spent on them, because everything I did was aligned with my personal values. I put in the effort to understand myself, grow my leadership skills, and all the investments I made paid of a thousand times over in the long run in terms of building my reputation and a life of meaning.
And successes will happen, and will be a wonderful surprise. When someone who was a below-average student is now an honour student in a law program, and she credits her magnificent journey to debate training she received from us when she was 14 years old – that’s humbling. That’s why we do what we do, and our actions have mattered.
It’s these stories that motivate people in ways that aren’t as tangible in corporate contexts. When you set up nonprofits that set out to do good, you gain immense personal satisfaction from being able to use your passion to touch the lives of real people. It’s a beautiful feeling. If you step away from the daily grind of making a few dollars to pay your bills, you will realise that you want to make a difference. The more you see the fruits of your efforts – both in your life, as well as in those of the people around you – the more you’ll be motivated to stay on your path towards the greater good.
Google Maps Versus Compass
When planning our lives, there are some of us who take what I call the “Google Maps” approach. You have a starting point and an end destination, and a clear line traces your path, with very specific directions as to how you’ll get there. It’s quite a stressful way to live life, in my opinion. You have your objectives and milestones defined, and these come with demanding timelines. You end up being consumed by rushing to the next milestone, and often forget the destination because of the stress of each turn in your life, which usually never goes according to plan. And because of that, you’ll likely be stressed out or worse, overwhelmed and want to give up altogether.
Then, there’s my “Compass” approach. A compass gives you direction, and you define your North for yourself. For me, it was that I wanted to be a person who makes a positive difference in the lives of others. As long as you’re going North, you’re succeeding. On your way
North, you might come upon a mountain that you’ll have to climb, or a lake to go around. And that’s okay, because you’re not racing against the clock.
Yes, I have smaller, measurable goals, but I don’t stress myself out about achieving milestones. I schedule a lot of things in my calendar for my non-profit work, but it is not the same as giving yourself stressful deadlines. When you put that kind of pressure on yourself to succeed, small failures can become immensely crippling. For me, I know that as long as I’m engaged in activities that are taking me towards my North, my time is well spent.
Many people spend their lives trying to build an impressive CV, but I believe that you should work towards a memorable eulogy instead. Have you made a difference to people’s lives? What have all your efforts added up to?
As a helicopter pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, I had to realistically confront the possibility of death when I was flying humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions. It was a reality for us, and one that shifted my perspective on everything. The stress of whether I was successful enough, for instance, faded to the background. It was replaced instead with other, more significant concerns. How would people remember me?
Being close to death taught me to prioritise values over profits, and align my choices towards building a meaningful life with my time here. Yes, success is important, but not at the expense of making yourself miserable over it. Invest your time wisely into what you care about, and you will build your sense of purpose. The value in doing so is – while not quantifiable– tremendously meaningful.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Identify Your Passion
What are you passionate enough to want to share with others? Look at the themes in your life and narrow it down to one that you’d like to focus on. Take it seriously so that your motivation won’t fade away or get overtaken by less important tasks.
- Put it on Your Calendar
Block out time every week where you dedicate effort towards your passion project or nonprofit. In the calendar card, write down clearly what you hope to achieve during that time, and give yourself realistic goals to work on.
- Find Your Tribe
Who are the people who can walk alongside you towards your goals? If you involve others whom you trust, not only will you have more fun, you’ll also feel a deeper sense of accountability and are more likely to stay on track as a result.