Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

When I was a teenager, I remember my Dad telling me…

“Whatever you resist, persists.”

Professional Development

Last month, we organized a professional development workshop for about 130 faculty, staff, and administrators from eStem Schools. I was excited about the opportunity because I believe very strongly in the importance of acknowledging individual identity in any institutional system…especially education. The fascinating thing to me is the disconnect of this acknowledgement and why every institution doesn’t focus on individual identity to communicate their brand, whether it be a for profit company or non-profit organization.

We had two goals:

  1. Engage participants in activities related to individual brand building
  2. Take professional headshots of every single eStem employee

Over the past several years, I’ve shared numerous conversations about this individual brand idea with professional photographer, John David Pittman (JDP). We went back and forth with ideas and terminology. Call it marketing, branding, messaging…whatever you want. Our collective belief was in the power of controlling your own narrative and being conscious of how you’re communicating that narrative to the world. I believe it to be more important from my position as a high school educator as access into college hinges greatly on judgment that students receive through social media channels. It’s no secret that college admissions officers look at an applicants social media accounts to make judgments regarding acceptance.

Therefore, I believe my professional responsibility is to introduce students to this reality…what Google calls the Zero Moment of Truth – ZMOT (“it’s the new decision-making moment that takes place a hundred million times a day on mobile phones, laptops and wired devices of all kinds.  It’s a moment where marketing happen, where information happens, and where consumers makes choices that affect the success and failure of nearly every brand in the world”.)

In a 2002 letter to shareholders and prior to the Google terminology, Procter and Gamble’s CEO, A.G. Lafley referred to the First Moment of Truth (“when consumers stand in front of store shelf and decide whether to buy a P&G brand, or a competing product”) and Second Moment of Truth (“when consumers use a product and it delivers a delightful and memorable experience – or not and then decides whether to buy it again”). In 2006, P&G employee, Pete Blackshaw created the Third Moment of Truth (“where the product experience catalyzes an emotion, curiosity, passion, or even anger to talk about the brand”). Reference – Keith Ewart | ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, TMOT

Business Sector Language

A.G. Lafley would probably tell you that all this started with a simple question…

What do our brands need to stand for in the hearts and minds of their strategic target?

Social Sector Language

Translating that to a students, teachers, and schools…

Who am I in the hearts and minds of friends and colleges?

Who am I in the hearts and minds of students and parents?

Who are we in the hearts and minds of parents and community?

As an educator, I’m curious how these moments of truth translate to the education sector. ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, and TMOT…do they apply to a school, to a teacher, to a student?


Who are we kidding? You want to check out a school…go to the website. You want to check out a teacher…google them. You want to check out a student…check social media. Furthermore, if the teacher isn’t on the website or is represented with a crappy photo and bio, it’s not good! JDP has since redefined that for eStem’s “Our Staff” page.

This is the world we live in and it’s not slowing down. You either adapt or get left behind as an individual and as an institution. The secret lies at the intersection of both. If institutions have individuals that value their brand and control their individual narrative in a healthy way, the institution will flourish. And…the individual will provide tremendous value to the institution by showing people they are a good citizen of the community. Therefore, it makes everyone better. Not just the individual. Not just the institution. Everyone!

Let’s get tangible. What can we do?

As A School

Start with culture and create a culture of communication. Challenge all teachers to post something once a day. One tweet, one instagram picture, one facebook or blog post. Encourage teachers to be themselves while embracing their own voice, their own style, and their own authentic selves. All posts should focus on positive stories being created in the classroom or school. This will drive a healthy school culture.

As A Teacher

Think of your classroom as a brand. What stories are you telling and how are you telling them. If you aren’t telling them, no one else will. Is it through social media? Through emails to parents? Through school newsletters? How are you connecting with parents, with students, with other teachers…these are your stakeholders. The more communication the better.

As A Student

What does your social media account look like? Perform an inventory and see how you’re talking about yourself and others. Based on social media alone, are you someone you’d want to accept into Harvard? What is your messaging to the masses? The majority of students have much more power than any teacher or school because they have more followers.

Change is Hard

The transition from discomfort to discovery is painful and some people never make the transition. When I was trained in the Change Cycle curriculum there was one quote that stood out and resonated:

Image result for socrates the secret of change

As I stated above, we had two goals for the workshop and my job was to engage teachers in what we believed were relevant activities related to identity building. I had facilitated these activities with students and have received great engagement with the majority of students. Last year, I decided to introduce a new activity that had students perform an individual activity, mirroring what Google does on an institutional level, which they call, Ten Things We Know To Be True.

Translating that to an individual basis required students to spend significant time in reflection mode. I was beyond impressed with student results. In fact, many students put their results on personal websites and one student, Bethanie Gourley, even made a video it, which is awesome!

I was very interested to see how teachers would respond to the same challenge and most of them embraced the process while sharing results with colleagues. However, there were some that I just didn’t reach and I put that on me. My fault.

After cleaning up, I was on my way out of the building and came across a paper on one of the tables with the “Ten Things” exercise. My eyes went to #8…

I understand that not all teachers or administrators will agree with me about the importance of individual identity and how I believe we should treat it as a branding opportunity for students, teachers, and schools. I understand that branding can have a negative connotation in the social sector but…the world we live in today is very fast. It’s not a matter of if but when. You might not believe in the “brand” identity approach but every market (business and social) in the world is showing us that “brand” is important and has the ability to control messages, actions, and attitudes towards individuals and institutions. I know we’re not products, but the ZMOT to TMOT approach is now applicable to people. How do we leverage ourselves and our stories for the common good?

As Tristan Walker says, “No one else should be telling my story.”

It’s easy for me to empathize with people that state, “I am not a brand.” I totally understand where they are coming from. This whole social media thing didn’t exist when I was in high school or even when I started teaching. In the whole scheme of things, it’s totally new to me but I’m trying to embrace the change. Innovation isn’t limited to institutions, it needs to happen to individuals and if you don’t innovate yourself, no one else will.

So, let’s reframe. Fine, you’re not a brand. How about this…you’re a story that isn’t finished yet. As my friend Dave Knox told me many years ago, “Marketing is telling the story, and branding is continuing the story.”

If Dave is right, and branding is continuing the story, it begs a couple questions…

  1. Who continues the story?
  2. Who consumes the story?
  3. Who cares about the story?

Embrace it or resist it…your headshot is the first line of your story, and the story continues. What will it be?

Here is what we did. Enjoy!

A new hashtag I’m playing around with…