Why Your Military Rank Is Not Your Personal Brand


Question: I'm getting ready to retire from the United States Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. I've heard that personal branding is critical for a successful transition to the private sector, but I'm not sure if my rank is my brand. Can you explain how branding works?

Answer: Great question. A personal brand is not the same as your job title, rank or status in the community. A brand, by definition, is an expectation of an experience, meaning your personal brand dictates what I (your target audience) believe to be true about you, your reputation and what I could expect if I hired, worked with or engaged with you.

Personal brands are based on authentic values and qualities of character, not job titles. Knowing who your target audience is, is critical to building a meaningful and sustainable personal brand and reputation.

Think about it this way: If someone is recovering from lung cancer, are they now known as "a cancer survivor"? What if they don't want that reputation? Does this mean that their work as an advocate for civil rights, or their career as an impactful schoolteacher, or their commitment to serving their country takes second? While it's possible that your job can become what you are known for, you can also direct the reputation and brand you are assigned.

The cancer survivor who is also a passionate advocate for civil rights can choose whether their illness plays a role in their personal brand. Perhaps they use the experience with the disease to highlight their resiliency in overcoming challenges and facing their fears. Similarly, they can choose not to include the illness in their life story, focusing instead on their impact and influence in the communities they seek to serve.

As you retire from the Air Force, consider how you want your legacy to be defined and shaped. Your rank and job title don't tell me the story of who you are, what you value and believe in, and what you've committed to. Your personal brand does.

Think back on your time in uniform and consider these questions:

  • What am I most proud of from my time in the military?
  • What impact have I had on the people around me?
  • What problems do I enjoy solving?
  • How do I want to be remembered at the end of my life?

These questions, admittedly, are not easy to answer. During your time in uniform, you focused on others, not yourself, and now I'm asking you to look inside at your values, goals and legacy. This will feel awkward at first.

As you unfold and develop your personal brand, you will look for synergy across all touchpoints: From your profiles on social media, to your networks of contacts, to the way you dress and speak, you will strive to project a consistent impression of who you are, what you value and what you can offer to someone else (your target audience) that they deem valuable.

Over time, your reputation and brand evolve into a real and genuine reflection of you, the individual, not the rank. Your time in the military is part of your story, but it isn't the entire story of your life and purpose here on Earth.

Lida Citroën, a branding expert based in Denver, has made a career of helping people and companies create new or enhanced identities. She is passionate about helping veterans learn how to compete for careers in the civilian sector. A TEDx speaker, Lida presents her unique personal branding training programs at military installations and events across the U.S. She is also the author of the best-selling book, "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition."

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