I didn’t know Trey Pennington, and I almost didn’t write an article concerning his death because of that. Two other bloggers I respect who did know him have already done so, and many others besides. But then on Monday, after reading Davina Brewer’s post, I stopped in the middle of commenting.
I thought, I have no comment. I didn’t know Trey any more than Davina did, and even Davina is helpless as to what could possibly be said here. What message is being sent? What lesson can be learned?
Let’s hold that thought and go visit Coca-Cola for a moment. Do you know the name of Coke’s CEO? Which one? You’re asking. Don’t get wishy-washy, throw a name out there. I trust you, I wouldn’t know if you were lying, and I wouldn’t care enough to check. Now let’s head over to Cupertino. Nobody hears of Apple without hearing of Steve Jobs. He was adopted, you know. And he likes India. So what he’s no longer CEO, do you see where I’m going with this?
It takes no effort to maintain a public persona, or–more accurately–to use one. Because if a guy came up and gave me his full name and address, favorite color, the names of his dog and fish, and then said, “I’m CEO of Coke Australia,” all preceding data would be vaporized, and I’d tell you from the foggy memories remaining that the CEO of Coke was a nice guy. But his very facial features would by then have transmogrified into the Coke logo and all that stands behind the brand itself for me. Steve Jobs? I’ve got a bucket of factoids to splash you with about him, but his face may as well be a brand logo, too.
What takes effort is to reach out–as I read Trey did at some point–beyond that persona, and pull people in to meet the person behind it. We’re uncomfortable doing that. I’d say Trey had very good reasons for being uncomfortable doing that. Yet, he did. But how far does that go? The fact is, if any of us really knew Trey, we wouldn’t wonder why he committed suicide. We’d be chewing on regret and going, “Yeah, I coulda told you that’s where he was headed.” Right? But he didn’t want that.
Right up until the moment he took his last breath, he was fine with keeping the believers in his personal brand confident in him. That was the message he wanted to send–at that time, at least. Heartbreak followed, because a couple of hours later he’d left behind thousands of people who believed in it so well, they felt they were personal friends of his. He gave that much of himself to them.
Let’s be real about this: As professionals, we’re taking advantage of personal branding today–both online and offline, but especially online–in ways we’d never be able to outside the business world, because we need it. We need to see the earnest, smiling faces and quirky avatars; hear the upbeat, confident voices; get high on the endorphins we get from compliments. Snark makes us smile, but haters make us unsubscribe. What we can learn from Trey, though, is that having this need fulfilled hundreds of thousands of times a day can’t save any person behind any persona.
As much as we say we crave the “human face” of a company and hate the “impersonality” of bots, the simple fact is that holding people–all people–at a certain distance while conducting business is what keeps us sane and smart while making business decisions. And after all the speculation, the most unarguable fact about Trey to a stranger like myself? He was a smart businessman.