Who am I? This is such an important question, but one we do not often take the time to ask ourselves. Well, at least not until we feel lost.
When asking this question, we may be trying to understand our own personal identity — who we are and what we stand for.
Or we may be asking the question to determine group identity. This is sometimes called “social identity theory,” and relates to an individual’s sense of belonging to a group.
The question of identity is very nuanced and requires a certain comfort level with deep thinking, and frankly it may be beyond my pay grade. Truth be told, I probably ignored most of this in philosophy or psychology classes in college. But as I am showered in the media with ideas of mindfulness, reflection and working for purpose, I have become more interested in seeking answers as an adult, a parent and a leader. So I went exploring.
We’re never too old for self-exploration
Exploring who we are is a healthy part of growing up and defining our life path. It’s just difficult because it can feel fuzzy or undefined. It’s not something everyone is comfortable talking about. And often there is a stigma that says this is a question we should answer in our 20s and move on. It’s not for someone in their 30s, 40s or 50s to contemplate. But why not? Heck, I am 54 and still trying to figure out who I am.
But I do have a strong sense of self, which is constantly being challenged as my relationships and the world around me evolves. The pace and type of change I face both supports and pushes against what I believe and how I act. These challenges and conflicts are scary and sometimes frustrating, but it is the way we learn and grow as individuals – and for me, at least, that is a lifelong exercise.
We need to be okay with that as human beings, as employees, as leaders and as a society.
Does our work allow us to be ourselves?
Last week I met with an executive whom I coach, and this person expressed frustration and confusion: “I do not know who I am. I live in two different worlds: the one I work in and the one I go home to. I cannot be myself at work.”
Listening to this, I felt sad and lucky at the same time. I felt sadness for the person I was coaching and, yet, I realized how fortunate I am to be able to be “me” at work. I started to suggest how this individual could be more “authentic” at work, but then I stopped and reflected.
Who is the one that is actually lost and needs to find their way here? Who needs to do some growing up? Is it my client – the person asking “who am I?” Is it the company that should be asking “who are we?” Is this sense of duality and disconnection really the executive’s issue, or our collective issue as businesses? I believe the answer is probably a combination of the two.
As a leader, how am I helping people understand who we are as a team and a company? Identity issues, while personal, are also corporate. For example, topics such as “purpose driven,” “stakeholder vs shareholder,” “whole-self,” “pro-social behaviors” and “employee value propositions” have all found their way into a business dialogue because we are collectively searching for a sense of belonging. Work, just like the rest of life, is deeply personal…and that’s actually okay. Embracing that reality will make each of us better, as a business, an employer and a contributor to society in general. When we recognize this search for belonging as an opportunity rather than a problem, we have the chance to attract clients and employees and, more importantly, to retain them.
The search for brand identity
As a result, I began to ask how I could help stakeholders understand who we are as a team or a company. I think the answer is simple: our brand. Or so I thought because brand is a tricky concept.
It is much harder to create a corporate identity than it is a personal identity or even a product identity. But it is the corporate identity, or brand, that will help individuals, employees and customers decide if they want to work with you, and more importantly if they want to stay with you. It’s what will convince them that they belong to this “group,” that you share common interests and, therefore, deserve their loyalty. They may initially come to you because of a product and how you market and sell that product — but they will stick with you because of who you are, what you stand for, and how that aligns to who they believe they are as individuals.
This type of exploration is not for the faint of heart. It’s deep, sometimes uncomfortable, and most certainly debatable reflection. But those who believe in it and commit to it will be the ones who separate themselves from the pack.
To get started, here are a couple of things to think about:
- Who are you?
- Who do you work for?
- What is the corporate brand (if this is too big at first, rephrase and ask what is your team brand)?
- How does your company or your team make you feel and why do you stay?
- Does your personal identity align to your company’s or team’s identity?
The questions sound simple, but the work is both hard and critical. Let’s dig in as leaders and really try to understand and communicate our team and corporate brands. Let’s really understand “who we are,” not just what we sell. It may help our stakeholders (employees, customers, investors and partners) feel a better sense of belonging and alignment, and tie to something deeper than a product or service. Proud people are advocates. Everyone, including companies, needs advocates.