Secret mantra for success: How to become your own brand

Well-known communication expert Maha Abouelenein on what it takes to thrive in the age of social media


Anamika Chatterjee

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Maha Abouelenein
Maha Abouelenein

Published: Thu 25 Apr 2024, 7:03 PM

Modern life has placed us on a treadmill. We chase careers, money and fame — all of which often depend on the validation we receive from external entities. What modern living has also afforded us is an opportunity to be self-reliant, to make our mark in the gig economy and control the narratives on our lives through our social media footprint. The changing social landscape is ushering in the age of self-reliance, which means there is a need to unlearn and relearn a few things and steer our lives towards a direction in which we are on the driver’s seat.

Maha Abouelenein is a well-known communication expert who has been at the forefront of managing communication and reputation of some of the leading entities in the region. The former Dubai-based head of global communications and public policy for Google, she has served as external advisor to under secretaries of public diplomacy for the US State Department and had been the international communications advisor for the prime minister of Egypt. This year, she has penned a book that offers useful suggestion on becoming self-reliant. While 7 Rules of Self-Reliance will release in October, we caught up with Maha for a deep dive into the perks and perils of being self-reliant. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your formative years.

I was born and raised in a small town in Minnesota. My dad was a professor at Minnesota State University and became the Dean of the College of Business. My parents had moved to the US to go to postgraduate university and ended up living nearly 40 years in the United States.

I had a typical American childhood — July 4 parades, playing outside with neighbours and sports in high school. However, inside the four walls of our house it was all Egypt — the food, the language, the culture and even the music. My parents played a lot of music by Egyptian icons Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kulthum, and that is where my ear learned Arabic for the first time. My parents were very good about taking us to Egypt on the summer holidays and during Christmas vacations to spend time with family and ingrain us with a strong sense of our culture, values, religion and family traditions and rituals.

I lived in the US until I was 27, when my parents decided to move back to Egypt. Having been born and raised in the US, even though I was an Egyptian, it was a hard transition. I didn’t have friends or speak the language fluently. I had to rely on myself to build a network, create relationships, find my way and build a career in a hard reset. And this at a time when people were venturing out on their own — I went all in with my parents. My mother was fully disabled with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and I was her primary caretaker in Cairo, while my dad had taken a role to build the new business school at the American University of Sharjah, so I had to figure this out on my own.

I secured a role at Orascom Telecom, working for Naguib Sawiris and from there, my career continued to grow, taking on roles to build Weber Shandwick in the Middle East, then moving from Egypt to Dubai to become the head of global communications and public affairs at Google, launch Netflix in the Middle East, serve Careem out of Dubai, work for the Executive Office of the Ruler of Dubai. I launched my own company, Digital and Savvy, that focuses on strategic communications with offices in the US and Dubai.

Your one parent suffered from ALS and other from MS. What did that teach you about self-reliance?

Patience. My mother suffered from MS for 22 years before she passed away and my father had ALS for two years. Both of these are debilitating neurological diseases and I was their primary caretaker. I learned that when caring for someone, you have to find a way to win each day and rely on yourself to balance your needs and theirs. You know that announcement they make on the plane: to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others? It’s the same concept. Rely on yourself to make the best choices and decisions of that day to win the day. And be patient. Don’t try to boil the ocean and overwhelm yourself, give yourself grace to do what you can with what you have at that time. When you act hastily, you cannot make good decisions. And most importantly, no regrets. Don’t second guess, don’t overthink, don’t live with regret. Accept this is your story and the lessons will come later.

You contend that self-reliance is a combination of self-confidence and self-worth. Interestingly, many people struggle in these aspects. Why has modern life robbed us of an opportunity to genuinely believe in ourselves?

I think social media has contributed to that. We live in a world where everyone is comparing themselves to others, even though everyone is on a different journey. Modern life is fast-paced and sometimes seems unrelenting for how much keeping up you need to do just to stay ahead. This is the reason I am focusing on the concept of self-reliance. Slow down, build your skills, invest in yourself and work on what you value the most and care about — not what others value. If you leverage your self-confidence by truly believing in yourself and telling yourself positive things (as opposed to negative self-talk) and know that you are worthy of the value you bring to others, you will trust yourself to rely on yourself more. How can you expect someone else to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?

Your first rule of self-reliance is to stay low and keep moving forward. How does staying low help women in the workforce who struggle to get noticed?

Stay low and keep moving means you should put your head down and do the work — let the work speak for itself and gain the recognition instead of going out of your way to seek validation from others. Women in the workforce who struggle to get noticed need to focus on a few things: first, building their personal brands and what they want people to know about them and second, they should focus on how they communicate, become good at telling stories and connecting with others. Next, focus on building strong networks and relationships. These go a long way in demonstrating your value. Last but not the least, put time and energy into delivering meaningful and valuable work and contributions — doing something worth getting noticed for.

Between unlearning and relearning, which process do people find most challenging?

Unlearning is hard. Unlearning is the process of taking habits, opinions and behaviours that are now outdated and replacing them with new ones (relearning). Unlearning involves self-awareness and being able to recognise some of the unhelpful beliefs in order to replace them with more relevant or accurate ideas that reflect today’s society. It requires a willingness to be open to change and critical thinking and reflection before you can change.

All of this is hard, especially when it requires a hard reset and habits are formed over a long period of time. But there are so many benefits of unlearning — in a world where technological and societal shifts are happening around us everyday, unlearning helps individuals and organisations stay relevant and effective. Unlearning forces us to be more creative and solve problems in new ways. It promotes personal growth and learning by making it a habit to question and expand our own thinking, environment and skills. And last but not the least — unlearning stereotypes and biases is crucial for fostering a more inclusive world both socially and professionally.

In the age of cancel culture, how challenging is reputation management?

Protecting your reputation has never been more important or more challenging, given the fact we live in a 24-hour news cycle. Cancel culture is driven by so many factors, not just social media, but also for an increasing demand for public accountability, which is largely driven by our 24-hour access to information. It poses a threat to reputation management because the impact of being “canceled” can be immediate and severe and hard to recover from.

To build and protect your reputation today requires you to think about your impact and behaviour across so much more than social media because everybody has the power to film and broadcast you to the world — with or without your permission. Your reputation is made up of your online and offline behaviour. It's challenging – but not if you operate as if the camera is always on – you work and act ethically and hold yourself to high standards of accountability.

The challenge with cancel culture and managing your reputation is that cultural and societal norms are always shifting and evolving — meaning what was normal before is now considered taboo. So, for you to master reputation management, you need to be nimble and agile to ensure you are always building and protecting yourself in ways that are culturally relevant, authentic to you and consistent with your values.

One of the benefits of evolving times is that our thinking and behaviour evolve, too, and that means progress. The public is quick to cancel people and/or companies instead of taking a long-term view and being more inclusive. This is the reason why reputation management is something everyone needs to be on top of and working actively to proactively manage. And this is not just for companies — I argue what's more important is that everybody spends time thinking about their personal brand. This means you should be thinking about putting out the information you want the world to know about you, yourself. Because if you are not branding yourself, you can be sure others will do it for you.

But in the age of social media, where anyone and everyone can be a brand, how does one stand out?

A personal brand is made up of three elements — your skills, your experience and your personality. While someone might match your exact skills and experience, they will never be able to match your personality; personal brand is what is personal to you. Everybody is unique and has something to offer — my aim is for everyone to be intentional about what they put out into the world. If you have a social media account, you’re a personal brand. If you have a job, you’re a personal brand. Your personal brand is how you communicate with others and what you want people to know about you, and your values. There are so many ways you can stand out but it depends on how you choose to tell your story. First, you need to bring value to your audience. Second, you need to be a very good listener. A personal brand that is in tune with what's happening in the market, in culture and where their voice fits in can be very effective in standing out. Lastly, the most important thing that one can do to stand out is to be very good at storytelling. Storytelling is the foundation of effective communication— how you share your idea and having one clear, compelling idea is the name of the game.

You write, “Most companies spend a lot of time working with PR teams and communicating to the media, stakeholders and customers, but they don’t put the same effort into internal communications.” Is that where companies fail most gravely in your opinion?

Internal communication is the unsung hero of communication! I don’t feel companies fail gravely, I feel they just don’t prioritise it as much. People trust people more than they trust companies, so I believe that we should focus on a robust internal communications practice. This goes beyond a company newsletter or Slack channel — I mean find new and meaningful ways to engage employees and inspire them by sharing more information with them. Sharing information builds trust and loyalty and can be an effective tool for employee retention and recruiting.

When employees understand the story behind the purpose — driven from the top — they are more likely to see themselves as a part of that journey. How companies treat and value their employees can have a very positive impact on the employees but also their reputation externally. It's a win-win scenario. It can also lead to better results and long-term performance. Companies with highly effective communication practices enjoy 47 per cent higher total returns to shareholders (Tower Watson) and companies with engaged employees outperform the competition by as much as 202 per cent (Gallup). And people find employees have the most reliable information about a company since they work there — trusting them more than the PR department or even the CEO as they bring a strong sense of credibility. Those are priceless brand ambassadors.

You talk about a shift from hustle culture to value culture. Would it be incorrect to contend that both co-exist?

Yes, today both co-exist and both have to do with working hard, but my point is that bringing value to other people is something we need to put on a pedestal. When you create value for other people, you ultimately create value for yourself because you learn immensely from those encounters and experiences.

Hustle culture promotes being constantly busy as a virtue. The idea is that the more you work and the busier you are, the closer you are to achieving success. Value culture promotes intention as a virtue. The idea is by delivering with intentions based solely on what someone values — this will not only help you achieve your ultimate goals, but it also helps you build stronger relationships.

In the age of AI, will self-reliance be the key to thrive?

I strongly believe that everybody will need to understand, practise and master self-reliance — and not just because of AI. Self-reliance is the practice of having the ability to invest in yourself and own your future. If you don’t have the skills you need to stay sharp in an ever-changing world, you will be left behind. We are no longer competing with people in only our markets; thanks to virtual working environments, we are competing with talent around the world. And AI is not just coming, it’s here.

It’s eliminating jobs and will create new ones, but don’t get out-talented because you’re not putting the effort into yourself. Self-reliance is about putting in the work. It's not about being alone and not working or collaborating with others — it's about putting yourself on the front foot by having a full deck of cards — these cards are skills, relationships, and experiences. It's also a mindset — to be a long-term player, to create value for others first and to be a lifelong learner.


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