The one thing I wish I knew earlier in my career

leadership brand

If we randomly select 10 colleagues, who work closely with you, and ask them to describe who you are as a leader;

What would they say?

Would they say similar things, or very different things?

Would they say specific things or generic things?

Would they say positive things or not so positive things?

The answers to these questions will tell you if you have a clear leadership brand, and how well defined it is. 

If your colleagues are saying similar (ideally positive) things, it means that your actions and interactions are reinforcing those attributes. This is rare. You may think it is a no brainer. Let me assure you, it is not. Having learnt it the hard way early in my career, and having worked with hundreds of leaders since; in most instances, our colleagues see us differently than we see ourselves.

Why we need a strong leadership brand, and how to build it, is the advice I wish I had received, earlier in my career. 

Why does it matter?

A few years ago, I am in a heated debate on candidates for a succession plan for a critical role. A very talented female leader, and her performance and potential, is the focus of the debate. Each of senior executives, who have worked with her in different capacities, have different perspectives about her. While her manager and I are active advocates and see the value she brings, a couple have concerns about her enterprise mindset, ability to be a team player, and leverage our highly matrixed organization, while yet others have questions about her strategic thinking, or her ability to influence without authority. We are surprised that they see a completely different person, from us! 

It was a wake up call for us – to help her discover her uniqueness and coach her to be able to bring it forward consistently in all her actions and interactions. 

While it worked out in this case, there are just too many workplace stories that don’t end well. 

Think of the brands you know and love, they all have a clear story and value proposition. There are brands that have become synonymous with the product category or industry, and have entered our lexicon in unique ways, whether it is ‘uberizing‘ a service, or making a campaign ‘insta-worthy’! What differentiates these brands is that they have brand equity. They have carved out a niche for themselves in our very cluttered world, and established a personal connection with us. How can we learn from this to craft a message that is true to us?

Why is it important to have a leadership brand?

Authenticity

Leadership brand helps us amplify our authenticity, by giving us control over our narrative. 

Shape expectations

Our world has become increasingly unpredictable and complex. It is difficult to know what to expect when you hire or promote someone. An impactful leadership brand helps us set the stage, create a sense of predictability (which reduces risk in the mind of the hiring manager), and helps present us in the best light. Think of it as a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.

Own and manage perceptions about us

If we don’t manage our leadership brand actively, others will define it for us, … and we may not love the outcome.

Help our leaders take a chance on us

Every time our leader advocates for us, mentors us, connects us with their network or sponsors us, they are staking their reputation on us. When our leadership brand is clear and consistent, it makes it easier for our leaders to take a chance on us. 

More importantly, it makes it difficult for our bosses who don’t support us, to hide us from opportunities, because it puts them on the hot seat to justify to their leaders, peers and teams, as to why we are not on the shortlist. Unsupportive bosses don’t want to be under that spotlight!

Build credibility

The most precious currency of business, is trust. One key builder of trust, is reliability.  When we have a strong leadership brand, it elevates the way colleagues engage with us, give us the benefit of doubt during adversity, and advocate for us when we are not in the room. 

Break bias

There is a significant amount of work to be done on making the world of work more equitable. The pandemic has had an inordinate impact on women and minorities. Breaking through the fog of biases our leaders have, is extremely challenging. Creating a unique and impactful leadership brand can provide the sharpness and clarity to start cutting through that fog, and pushing leaders to see us as individuals.

The post pandemic leadership evolution

Leaders came under the burning glare of a million spotlights, in an instant, as our world changed. Leaders who continued to inspire their teams and helped them thrive, led the way in reimagining leadership of the future. They redefined what strength looks like, in the new world. And it is all about vulnerability, courage, and resilience. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to figure out who we are as leaders in this new world of work.

Is leadership brand different from reputation?

Leadership brand is a clear and specific definition of our unique value proposition. It should capture what differentiates us from others, as well as clarity of what we as a brand, stand for.

When we are able to consistently bring forth our brand in every interaction, everywhere, we start to build a reputation.

Think of all the leaders you know and love. What is it about them that makes them stand out so vividly? 

Think of the leaders you worry about, walk on eggshells around. Why do they make you feel uncomfortable? 

All too often, an inconsistent brand is the lifeblood of organization politics, and fodder for gossip and backstabbing.

How to create an impactful leadership brand

There are 5 gut wrenching questions that are critical to discovering what is unique about us and our leadership. These questions are difficult and we may be tempted to go with the first answer. But it is important to stick with it, and truly reflect and ask ourself as many ‘whys’ as it takes to get to the bottom of it. 

Dig deep to understand my core 

Questions for reflection:

Who do I want to be as a leader? What is the impact I want to have on my teams and colleagues?

As I reflect on my life (not just my career), what are the pivotal experiences/ points of inflection and how have they shaped me, and my leadership?

As I look back at my life, how have my values, and what matters most to me, shaped my leadership?

How have my aspirations, or the difference I want to make, or legacy I want to build shaped my leadership?

How has my leadership style evolved over my career? What are the learnings that have helped me grow as a leader?

Am I being myself everyday at work? When do I feel like myself, when do I not?

These questions help us peel back all the layers, and get to what lies at our core. Building a brand on the foundation of this core, is as authentic and timeless as a brand can be.

Identify my strengths

Questions for reflection:

What is my superpower? 

What am I absolutely amazing at? 

What do people seek me out for and why? 

What do my colleagues think I am amazing at?

What leadership behavior has been the biggest driver of my success? (Remember: everyone has leadership behaviors)

Building a leadership brand on these questions, helps us lean in to our natural strengths and amplify our impact.

Identify my uniqueness

Question for reflection :

What aspects of work bring me the most joy? 

What work inspires me?

What aspect of my work would I continue to do even if I didn’t get paid for it?

What differentiates me as a leader?

Many years ago, I attended a session by Ram Charan, prolific author and eminent thought leader of our times. He asked the audience to describe Steve Jobs, and thousands of generic words came tumbling out from the audience – brilliant, strategic, great aesthetics, visionary, high performance oriented, result oriented, hard charging, etc etc. He blinked under the deluge of words, and finally said, “one of the things that truly differentiated Steve Jobs was his ability to commercialize innovation”. It was a great lesson. We often use a lot of words to say very little. We are generic and completely miss the essence.

As we craft our leadership brand, it is important to remember that the more specific and clear we are, about our unique value proposition, the more impactful our brand will be. Ask yourself:

What is that one sentence that describes only me?

Identify the relevance of my uniqueness

In the a) current business (or world) context, b) future business (or world) context, c) career aspiration context

Questions for reflection : 

What differentiates me in the current context?

What has unlocked success for me in the most challenging assignment in my recent past?

What differentiates me from a future perspective? Which of my leadership skills and capabilities are future ready, and will accelerate my adaptability to market disruptions?

What are the leadership capabilities required for my dream role?

Building a leadership brand based on these questions will help us create an impactful brand, relevant in the short term, as well as the long term.

Find my purpose

What starts as a quest to create a leadership brand, often triggers deeper soul searching, and a quest to find and live our purpose,

In my work with leaders, I’ve seen many struggle with the hard questions, and dig deeper and deeper for answers. It is the struggle, that makes finding our purpose so immensely rewarding. 

Questions for reflection:

What is most important to me and why?

What is meaningful work?

What does a life well lived mean to me?

What can’t I live without in my work?

Building a leadership brand, closely connected to our purpose, magnifies its resonance exponentially.

How do you strengthen your leadership brand?

Congruence and consistency are the key. Congruence between values, words, actions. Congruence between intent and impact. And consistency of brand equity. 

Bringing it all together 

Look for common themes emerging in the answers, to all of these questions. Pull it all together with these 5 steps.

Write a paragraph articulating your leader brand

Run it by your trusted family, friends and a few colleagues. Seek their feedback and insights, and make changes as needed.

Observe your interactions to see if your actions and interactions are consistent with your leadership brand

When are they consistent? When are they not? 

How will you bring consistency and congruence to your leadership brand during those times. 

My hope for you, is that you create the leadership brand that amplifies your authenticity, helps you be the best you, and helps you soar. 

I’ll be rooting for you.


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