To advance your career, let go of your need to be ‘me’

Marketers too often develop a limiting set of beliefs about who they are, what they do and how they behave. If you’re frustrated with your career this is the first place to look.

When I present or speak about managing your marketing career, I always start with the idea of getting tough on yourself.

What I don’t mean is blaming yourself, or getting up at 4am for three hours at the gym. No, I mean looking at yourself objectively. I mean that you should not see events as something that simply happen to you – something that fate brought to our doorstep deliberately, as though your (marketing) destiny was preordained at birth. You have a hand in things yourself, both good and bad.

Contributing to our own problems

One part of getting tough on yourself is to look at things that you don’t want to admit. And the toughest question of the lot is: ‘Am I collaborating in creating my career challenges? Am I sabotaging my own future?’

What I have noticed is that we sometimes play a part, inadvertently, in not getting that promotion – or, pandemics aside, being the first to be made redundant out of a group of people. Maybe we were blind to what was going on because we had our head down working; I know I did, I’ve been the first out the door on more than one occasion.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith writes about the idea in the book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’, which discusses the habits of successful people that ultimately stymie them. One slightly uncomfortable part I have noticed about people is what I call an excessive need to be ‘me’.

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Each of us has a pile of beliefs, behaviours and attitudes that we define as ‘me’. Lots of these are fine – ‘I am a hard worker’ or ‘I know I am right because I have done the work’ and so on. The problem is, if we 100% buy into this behavioural definition of ‘me’, we excuse ourselves almost every shortcoming by saying, ‘that’s just the way I am’.

A good friend of mine worked in advertising for years: a true advertising obsessive, working in advertising is what he always wanted to do. At the outset of his career, he studied day and night to get his first role, then worked his butt off and he had a great career. He is also a fun person to be with – and really overdelivered for his clients.

But fault lines appeared on a regular basis. His lens on the world was: ‘If I believe something to be true, I should say it. My passionate belief in the work means I must say it, and it would be wrong if I did not.’

In his case, it meant not biting his tongue when he should have. He was not rude or brash in getting his opinion across. He felt that his opinion needed to be heard. He might not observe it as such, but his excessive need to be ‘me’ was a contributor to the fact that he no longer works in the industry he loves.

None of us is immune. You can get away with this if you are Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Sadly, we are not all multibillionaires with minions around us to agree with all our whims.

As you read this column, think about your own behaviour. How many times does your own need to be ‘me’ get in the way of getting what you want? How many times have you rationalised things away by saying, ‘that’s just the way I am’?

If you are thinking, ‘if I am not me, then I am not being authentic or true to myself’, then you might need to rethink your worldview, as you are not ready to move your career forward.

The different types of need to be ‘me’

At its most straightforward, the need to be ‘me’ shows up as a personal sort of identification: ‘I am a brand manager in an FMCG firm’. That marketer has got their head so far down in the day-to-day that they are stuck in the weeds and cannot see what’s around them.

The answer to this problem comes from the 1980s movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” In other words, get your head out of the laptop.

A second version of the need to be ‘me’, which I always find a little bit sad, is the person who cuts themselves off from promotions, careers and futures because they cannot ‘see themselves doing it’. And (sweeping generalisation alert coming up) I see this more in female marketers than men.

This, to me, is a terrible waste of talent. To paraphrase Barack Obama’s Presidential slogan: ‘Yes, you can.’ And if someone ever suggests you apply for a role and you hear the voice in your head saying, ‘I could never do that’, well, that’s your trigger. Yes, you can. You are not your thoughts, just because you think them.

How many times have you rationalised things away by saying, ‘that’s just the way I am’?

A related version of this is saying to yourself: ‘I am not getting the recognition I want, so I am leaving.’ I know someone who walked away from incredible roles with two of the world’s best-known blue-chip FMCG brands because they were not recognising her amazingness; ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’ is an apt description of her current situation. Faraway hills are not always greener.

Lastly, there’s the version that says ‘I must be right’. One of my own beliefs about ‘me’ has been that I must do a tonne of research and think a lot about a topic before coming to a conclusion. And, given that, my conclusion must be correct.

Trust me, it does not get you anywhere. Today, I still do the research – and still think a lot about a topic – but I don’t feel attached to it. I don’t feel the overwhelming need to be ‘me’. I have too many examples to point to of where I have been wrong.

The marketing Machiavelli

Possibly the most pervasive of the ‘need to be me’ beliefs is around politics. People prefer to believe that the workplace is a just and fair place, and that everyone gets what they deserve if they work hard. They don’t want to play ‘political’ games.

I blame all the rubbish written about leadership – full of recommendations about being authentic, honest, modest and truthful, and never, ever being a bully or, god forbid, shouty or abusive. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, describes ‘level 5’ leaders as individuals who are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy”, who get the best out of employees by not soaking up all the limelight and making all the decisions.

This is all aspirational stuff written by people looking in the rear-view mirror, and conveniently forgetting that they had their elbows out (instead of leaning in) as they climbed up the greasy pole of careers.

The path to senior roles often bears little resemblance to the advice being dished out. The reality is more ‘Game of Thrones’ than fun and games. Turf wars, hallway lobbying and political infighting are not just alive and well in 10 Downing Street, they have been de rigueur between the powerful and power-hungry since Homo Sapiens stood up on two feet.

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Your insight on this issue comes from renaissance Florence. Your guide is Niccolò Machiavelli, author of ‘The Prince’ – yes, the one whose name has become synonymous with deceit, cynicism and machinations. Old Nic can be dismissed today as an amoral cynic who believed the ends justify the means, but The Prince has remained in print for 500 years.

What’s the lesson? See the world as it is, not as one would like it to be.  Machiavelli is, in fact, a crystal-clear realist; a great observer and analyst. Author Erica Benner summarises some of his aphorisms: “Know your own limits. Don’t try to win every battle. Treat other people with respect so you can get them on your side and keep them there; observe justice with enemies as well as friends.”

There is nothing warm and fluffy about Machiavelli’s ideas. You might not like them. You might not approve of them. But that has no impact on the truth. You need to be a ‘marketing Machiavelli’.

Having ‘agency’

In mythology, the ‘Fates’ are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. The Fates were Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Allotter) and Atropos (the Inflexible). Seems to me that Atropos is the one to blame for the need to be ‘me’. However, I would like to suggest something more modern: the idea of ‘agency’.  Wanting to be ‘me’ shows a lack of faith in personal agency.

What is agency? The ability to take action or to choose what action to take, influence your own life, change your own thoughts and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations. Having a sense of agency is also associated with being able to take responsibility for your actions and having an ‘internal locus of control’ over what happens.

Yes, sure, there are lots of things outside of our control. I should be 6’4”, have a head full of hair and look like Brad Pitt. This view isn’t helpful. As a performance coach friend of mine says to his athletes: “control the controllables”. And one of the things you can control is that moment when you say: ‘This is who I am. I’m me.’

Stop being you and try being someone else

In their upcoming marketing book, Just Evil Enough, authors Alistair Croll and Emily Ross talk about how a marketer of the future needs to be prepared to “subvert systems to create attention that can be turned into profitable demand”.

I want us to turn that around and point that insight at ourselves, rather than the market. How about subverting yourself – and not being ‘me’. That might actually mean you need to opt to be disagreeable, even if it’s not your natural state. It also means being brave enough to step outside of your known mediums to find new, creative and challenging ways to think.

Ross and Croll say that, in order to do this successfully, “you need to switch from normative (traditional) thinking, to formative (novel) thinking”. Traditional norms include the limitations of your own ego, unconscious biases, your desire to be heard and of course your desire to be right.

Right there, that sounds like the perfect summary of the need to be ‘me’. This need limits you, biases you and forces you to think you are right. You are not your thoughts, just because you think them. Stop being you for once and see if it changes your career.