What Hollywood Taught Me About Business and Reputation
I grew up on the west side of Los Angeles the 1980s. As a young adult, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the entertainment industry as it was all around me: friends, friends’ parents, work colleagues and every waiter who served my salad was connected to “the industry,” as it was called.
For 20 years of my career, I embraced the messages around influence and reputation that I witnessed growing up in Hollywood. I worked for some of the most fabulous companies, impressive business leaders and important ventures imaginable. While even my own career started in the entertainment industry, it wasn’t until I launched my own business that I realized there were scripts and narratives I’d internalized from growing up in Tinsel Town.
1. Authenticity is inside out.
In my early 20s, I remember a conversation I had with an aspiring actor I knew. We talked about what it meant to be an actor. He explained it this way: “I spend my life playing other people. I tell their stories, share their pain and successes. It’s not about me when I’m working.”
For years after that conversation, I internalized his message as I pursued a career in business. “It’s not about me,” I told myself, “it’s about the results and the success I can drive to the organization or team.” I delayed developing my own sense of self and instead relied on data, connections and my associations to give me perceived credibility.
When I launched my own company and decided to put my name on the door, it occurred to me that it was, in fact, about me -- not only in what I could provide my clients and what I could offer that was valuable to a target audience, but in how I was bringing value to their business and who I was when doing so. Understanding my own values and their merits meant that I was no longer going to be able to build a brand off other peoples’ ideas, data or systems. It was time to step fully into the spotlight and take the stage as my own character.
As my business grew, and my clients’ needs for innovative reputation management services became more complex and high-profile, I found myself relying deeper on my sense of self and purpose in my guidance. I was not consulting with clients based on what I’d read in a textbook or script; I was sharing my intuitive knowledge and my diverse and broad career experience. As a speaker and trainer, I recognized how my audiences responded well to me sharing my own story, insights and views -- not sharing the experiences of others. I learned that to be successful in business -- particularly as an entrepreneur -- one needs to standing fully in the light and own all choices and paths you’ve taken as part of your story -- no one else’s.
Consider how contestants are pushed on the reality show, Shark Tank. The panel of investors often ask the budding entrepreneur to share their story and their inspiration. They want to understand what’s behind the invention or the product. They want to understand what problem the invention solves, why the challenge is personally meaningful for the entrepreneur, and how the inventor arrived at their stage.
In the words of Simon Sinek, the investors want to understand the entrepreneur’s “why.” As Sinek shares, “Whether you are an entrepreneur, an employee, a leader of a team, or are looking to find clarity on your next move, your WHY is the one constant that will guide you toward fulfillment in your work and life.”
To be authentic, I learned, means being clear about your purpose and passion, and then promoting yourself with consistency to others. This is the essence of a strong personal brand.
Later in life I had a conversation with another actor where she clarified the earlier message. “As actors,” she explained, “we are hired to bring other characters to life, but we do that not by putting on a mask and reading lines. Instead, we let our most genuine self shine through to tell someone else’s story. It’s a melding of the actor and the character that makes good acting seem easy and relatable.”
On stage, as in business, I learned that we must each bring ourselves into the situation, not just by relying on the words in a script or the mechanics of the job. All things being equal, we add value by using our unique qualities, experience and personality, recognizing that it’s our unique value that can make us an asset to an organization, company or venture.
2. Optics drive perception.
After college, I worked for an entertainment production company which coordinated high-profile social events in the Hollywood area. At one event, well-recognized celebrities filled every room. At one point, I was instructed by a popular movie star’s “people” to not stand near him. The reason? I stand 6’1” tall and this celebrity barely hits 5’10” on a good day. If I stood near him, photographers would capture the height difference and it would not look favorable on the “‘larger-than-life” celebrity.
A few years later, I heard a friend of mine talk about a celebrity client he represented (he was an agent). He talked about the PR triage required when his client snapped at a shopper in the grocery store who felt empowered to critique his latest movie. The client yelled at the woman and stormed out of the store. (Thankfully this was pre-cell phone videos.) His agent was concerned that if people started viewing the client as hot-headed and rude, it could negatively impact his marketability.
What I learned was that optics drive perception. Perception is formed by what we see, hear and believe to be true. If the optics are not consistent with what we believe, conflict arises.
As a business owner, I no longer worry about standing next to people who are different heights, but I am aware of the optics of situations. People believe what they see. As philosopher Deepak Chopra eloquently states, “Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships; they're all a projection of you.”
The work I do focuses a great deal on perception -- and driving positive perception. Personal branding as an entrepreneur, business leader, doctor, college student, athletic coach, etc. requires a focused and strategic view of the optics surrounding reputation. After all, the way other people see us drives their view of who we are, what we stand for, and what we can offer.
3. What does it take to build credibility?
Growing up in Hollywood, many times I heard people introduce themselves by the latest film, director or project they were connected with. They led with their resume, in reverse chronological order. Perhaps this wasn’t a uniquely “Hollywood” issue, but at impressionable age I received the message that who you are is directly connected to the last important undertaking you’d done.
This could easily lead one to believe if you didn’t have a hot recent project or a film that had done well in theaters, or a celebrity partner, or a Top 40 hit record, or if your last success was a year ago, you might not be relevant.
In business, I internalized this belief and found myself positioning my credibility by leading with my recent successes and impressive contacts, too. Pedigrees mattered. Contacts with influence mattered. Status was everything.
In my second job out of college, a gentle but direct manager once said to me, “Do you need any help lifting those?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “All those names you’re dropping…” I got the message.
I learned that while it’s helpful to have a broad network and build a solid reputation, your value should stand on its own merits. Team effort and group success is certainly to be celebrated, but people trust you and give you credibility when you can articulate your personal values, and then live those values.
This message came home for me when a prospective client approached me for help. She was struggling with reputation issues and told me a great deal of her stress came from her status as the ex-wife of a famous athlete. In our 20-minute introductory conversation she must have mentioned his name 10 times. In her frustration she said, “I want to stand on my own and not only be known as his ex.” The first step I recommended was to stop talking so much about him.
Growing up around and with the entertainment industry, I learned a lot of wonderful and valuable lessons about life, business and finding my own voice. Even if I learned these lessons in a most roundabout way. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything!