What We Can Learn From Tyra Banks' Career
My daughters and I used to watch Tyra Banks’ TV show “America’s Next Top Model” together. And for the record, we also watched the mixed martial arts equivalent show “The Ultimate Fighter”. We’re equal opportunity viewers.
Meeting Tyra Banks
Those who know us will know that we are hardly the family to travel in “supermodel” and “famous TV star” circles. So it was a surprise to meet Tyra Banks at a Harvard Business School reunion event last year in Boston.
In case you’re wondering, she is smart and articulate. And as gorgeous as she appears on TV, she looks even better in person. It hardly seems possible, but it’s true.
Since then, I’ve been even more intrigued by her career and impressed by the way she has built a successful business empire. Then, I came across this recent article by Zen Terrelonge in RealBusiness, and realized we can all learn from Tyra Banks’ experiences.
Here are six takeaways that we can apply to our own careers.
It’s not just about your assets
We are all born with different assets and develop still others over time. But having those assets is not enough. There are plenty of beautiful men and women who are not models, and many great basketball players who never play professionally.
“A lot of people look at the modeling industry and say ‘oh, those girls are born that way and become supermodels’. But there’s a heck of a lot of models that looked way better than me… Supermodels are made, not born.”
– Tyra Banks
While it’s crucial to know what your assets are, that’s not enough.
What matters is what you do with them.
When it comes to what you do with your assets career-wise, it’s about being strategic; being conscious and thoughtful in taking what you have and making it work for you.
“It really is about a strategy and looking at the white space and saying okay, what’s not there? How can I penetrate? How can I stand out?”
– Tyra Banks
The best way to do that is to look for places where your uniqueness and difference can be a positive. Instead of rushing to the place that everyone else is going, look for the underserved niches.
A great example of being strategic was early on in Tyra’s career when she went from being a runway model to being a swimsuit and lingerie model.
“I was a very skinny high fashion runway model when my body started to change and, instead of dieting and working out like crazy, I ate burgers and pizza and said ‘okay, who likes ass?' ”
She then went on to make the cover of Sports Illustrated’s famous swimsuit edition, and become a Victoria’s Secret model. Interestingly, that’s when her career really took off.
In your case, what are your assets and strong points, and how can you map that against the “white space” or gaps within your organization? Or with your clients?
Build your personal brand
Part of being strategic is working on your personal brand – what you become known for, what you stand for.
It would be easy to think, “of course Tyra Banks has a brand – she had the modeling agencies creating a brand with and around her”. But that’s about the brand of the products she was modeling for. It’s not what personal brand means in this context.
Personal brand is about the strengths that give you your competitive advantage and distinctiveness relative to everyone else. It includes elements like your ethos and work ethic, your creativity and resourcefulness.
From my observation, Tyra Banks’ personal brand includes being a risk taker, a fearless innovator, highly exacting about excellence, and confident to stand up for who she is and what she wants.
An important aspect of personal branding is about making it visible to others. If you know what your brand is but no one else does, you don’t really have a brand.
In that sense, it’s impressive how Tyra Banks put herself out there, leveraged her brand and kept it on point through so many different iterations of her career, from modeling to acting to talk shows to her own cosmetics line. And she’s not done yet!
To what extent are your key stakeholders aware of your personal brand? And how could you keep extending your personal brand to that next stage you aspire to?
Be determined yet adapt
Just like Tyra, you and I will continue to run into obstacles along the way. Tyra sums up her approach to obstacles in the following way:
“I always had it in me to fight and find a way.”
– Tyra Banks
My translation of “fight” and “find a way” is that it’s key to be determined and to adapt when the going gets tough.
Determination is about the “why”, or our purpose. Alongside determination is the ability to adapt the “what” and the “how” as the situation changes.
For example, you could be determined to become a banker, but then discover that you are better at analyzing financial institutions than putting together deals for them. You come to realize that your “why” is really about carving a career in finance, and that the “what” and “how” can shift.
In that scenario, a great adapting move could be to become a strategy consultant or research analyst focusing on banks.
What’s your bigger “why” and how does your determination (“to fight”) and ability to adapt (“and find a way”) serve it?
Tyra is a strong proponent of cultivating confidence and self-esteem, and encourages others to do the same. Much of this comes from her personal experiences and struggles as a child.
When she was 11, she grew 3 inches taller and lost 30 pounds in 3 months, and her classmates taunted her for looking different. This made her feel insecure and alone, and led her to think that being different was bad.
Thankfully, she had mentors and role models who helped her overcome this adversity by believing in herself, which contributed strongly to her subsequent success.
Confidence is a fundamental mindset that we need if we are to feel comfortable to take calculated risk and spot opportunities, and then reach out and grab hold of them.
In what ways are you cultivating your confidence, and spending time with those who help you believe in yourself?
Invest in yourself
When you’re confident, you’re more likely to invest in yourself and create a virtuous cycle.
When Tyra was starting her cosmetics business, she decided to make an investment in herself by attending Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program.
This carried a significant financial investment, and also an investment of time when she could have been doing something else. I’m sure she looked at many options and made a thoughtful choice about what would best help her achieve her aspirations.
Ironically, this one is often the hardest step for most of us to take. We look at the financial costs, and the opportunity cost of our time. So often, we say “no” to ourselves. That’s why I’m so impressed by Tyra’s investment during her prime earning years (which she is still in, by the way).
Yet in the end, investing in yourself is almost certain to deliver rewards because what you learn and develop will travel with you no matter where you go. After all, you are your most portable asset.
Looking ahead in your own career, what kind of investments do you need to be making, or at least considering, to help you succeed at the next level?
Go forth and make the most of your assets
Whatever your set of assets and strong suits, I look forward to hearing how you go forth and make the most of them.
And while you’re doing that, remember to be strategic, build your personal brand, be determined yet adapt when you need to, be confident, and keep investing in yourself.
I’d love to hear which of these lessons are most compelling to you. Leave a comment and let me know.