Branding is no longer restricted to the realm of consumer products and movie stars. Today, interest in creating a potent and recognizable brand is expanding into the ranks of corporate leadership. Apple will never be the same after its primary branded leader, Steve Jobs, stepped down. Neither will Berkshire Hathaway Inc. when its own astute veteran financier, Warren Buffett, chooses to retire.
We know these folks because their brand has been etched in our brains. Leadership development is becoming more about branding and influence. How can the board of directors at a large organization create a succession plan without knowing the reputation — or brand — of its emerging leadership base? What creates a powerful employee brand?
Chief Learning Officer magazine had the opportunity to get answers from Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications and the author a forthcoming book, Discover Your CEO Brand: Secrets to Embracing and Maximizing Your Unique Value as a Leader.
CLO: What is leadership — or employee — branding?
Bates: A brand is a thought that’s accompanied by a feeling that lives in the mind of another person. So when you think about that, it’s that instant impression that people have about you when your name comes up or when they see you walking down the hall. There are usually a few words or phrases that they associate with you, and really the core of your brand is who are you as a person and as a leader — what are the qualities and values that define you and make you who you are? I think there is a lot of confusion about brand because sometimes you hear brand talked about in terms of whether you have executive presence or whether you wear the right clothing or what your personality is. Those are elements of who you are but they’re not the core of who you are. The core of who you are is your belief system — it’s the values and principles that define you.
CLO: What can an employee or potential leaders do to brand themselves?
Bates: It starts with acknowledging that you have a brand and [realizing] that brand has power and that you can leverage it to influence other people. And when you understand that you have a brand, that brand recognition is what makes people talk about you; it’s what makes people want to work for you; it’s what attracts clients or prospects to you. So you have to know yourself. You have to understand what you’re all about. The way we figure that out is through storytelling. When we work with executives we get them to tell us stories about their lives and career, usually stories about challenges they’ve faced, obstacles they’ve overcome. Through those stories we learn the lessons that they learned that helped shape their values and beliefs. When we hear enough of those stories and we identify those values and beliefs that make them unique, now we’re able to help them think about how they live by those values and communicate those values to others.
CLO: What’s the first step future leaders should take to properly brand themselves?
Bates: No. 1, you need to take a look at your life and career as if it’s a treasure chest of stories that help you understand what your brand is. The brand-name leaders that everybody knows today all have a story. When you really understand who you are and can communicate that to other people, it drives value into your team, business or company. Who you are becomes part of the DNA of the organization [or team] that you lead. A brand isn’t public relations; it’s not marketing; and it’s not something that you necessarily invent. It has to be authentic to who you are.
CLO: How can organizations implement branding into their leadership development programs?
Bates: At every stage of an employees’ development there are steps you can take to help them become aware of who they are. Our company does communication skills and strategies. Think about early employees — what do they need to learn? They need to learn to be confident, to get up on their feet and be able to speak to audiences of any size; to organize their thoughts in a clear, compelling, concise way. But a lot of people stop there. They take one presentation course and they think that they’re done, but there are many more levels of development for a leader to become influential, to talk about big ideas, to persuade, influence and motivate, and inspire others. So, from my point of view, as a chief learning officer, what you really need to do is to have a full curriculum that covers the gamut of developmental needs of employees at every stage in their careers.
Presentation skills are just scratching the service. Your courses need to be more sophisticated and more focused on the needs of leaders as they advance in their careers. What happens a lot of times as people are rising up through the organization, those who are really good develop a high level of business and technical skills, but for many of them their communication skills don’t keep up. Suddenly, they’re promoted and then they’re exposed.
That’s the great challenge of learning and development today: There is a huge gap in their [high potentials’] development because there isn’t enough emphasis on sophisticated levels of communication — influence, motivation, inspiration.
CLO: What are the principles, values and characteristics that create an influential brand?
Bates: I think there are some common traits of leaders that always help them rise to the top. A balance of confidence and humility is key — integrity, commitment, intellectual rigor, authenticity. At the same time, it’s very important to be who you are and to understand the principles that define you — the values that define you, and to bring those out. While there are certain traits and characteristics that most great leaders have, we’re as different as we’re the same, and that’s why it’s so important to understand what your brand is. [It’s also important] for the organization to understand and appreciate what each leader’s brand is so they can help them be successful and so they can put them in the right job with the right team driving toward a goal.
CLO: What can CLOs take away and put into action on the notion of leadership branding?
Bates: I’d say there are three things. No. 1, the chief learning officer needs to understand what his [or] her brand is — what they’re all about. They need to go through the exercise of exploring the lessons and values and beliefs that define them, because when you’re clear about that and you can communicate that to your senior management [and] leadership [and] to your board of directors and to those [who] are influential within your organization, then those messages and your mission resonate with them. I think CLOs have to take what they do out of the realm of, ‘We should do this, we should do that,’ and move it into the realm of making it a compelling case for developing people that goes beyond checking a box. And when you understand your own values and principles and those are aligned with your company’s, then your CEO is going to recognize that what you’re doing and why you’re doing it completely resonate with where the company needs to go.
Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.