Consider how New York City's chief executive and the CEO of a Silicon Valley firm each demonstrated their personal brands during and after the events of September 11.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was everywhere - rushing to the World Trade Center after the first plane hit, fleeing for safety when the second tower collapsed, keeping the public informed, preparing the city for the unfolding aftermath of the attacks, meeting with firefighters and policemen, and consoling individuals and families over their losses. After a year of unending gossip and increasing irrelevance, he became the perfect leader for New York City in the most challenging of times. Informed, consoling and human, he was able to re-gain the trust and admiration of the many New Yorkers who had recently written him off.
In contrast, consider the Silicon Valley company CEO, as recounted in a recent issue of Fortune magazine, who was stranded away from his office in the aftermath of September 11, but didn't contact anyone at his company for two days. Upon his return, a short speech about the events was prefaced by the remark that he wasn't going to "pretend to be anyone's spiritual advisor." It's hard to imagine that this CEO ever had the trust and admiration of his team.
During challenging times - due to economic, national or natural crises - trust is fostered through the honesty and consistency of deeds and words. That's crisis management 101. But the real question is: should it really take a crisis to prod leaders to explore, identify, and act consistently upon their core set of values?
Leaders need to have having a strong personal brand through good times and bad. Defining yours and bringing it to life through consistency in action is something that today's best business leaders instinctively recognize, whether they articulate it or not. And the ability to build and demonstrate a compelling personal brand will continue to be a critical career success factor, whether you're starting, changing or optimizing your career.
How does one go about building a personal brand? The underlying principles are the same as those applied to the branding of a soft drink, an automobile, or a technological service. Recognize your personal strengths and gifts, think about how you best connect with people, consider what your target audience needs and wants, identify the value you deliver to meet those needs and wants, and communicate in a way that reaches your constituents in their hearts and minds and via the channels that work best for you. And most importantly, recognize the gaps in your personal brand and invest the time and energy to overcome those gaps.
On one hand, you have the functional aspects of a personal brand. A leader's functional brand promise is to deliver successful, objective results: to achieve profitable growth, to introduce a consistently successful array of new products to the market, or to reduce costs. What's more elusive to identify, much less to build, are the intangibles or the emotional benefits of a personal brand: being an inspirational visionary, an articulate communicator, or for most of us, simply being a compelling and confidence-inspiring leader.
But make no mistake. It's the emotional benefits delivered through your personal brand that make the difference between being seen simply as an able business-person and being seen as a true leader.
A personal brand is incomplete if it's built by emphasizing either functional or emotional qualities alone. These qualities must work in tandem. Proficient functional skills and the ensuing results establish your credibility. The emotional benefits broaden the value you deliver. If built upon functional attributes alone, your brand risks a similar fate as products that slip into commodity status. You will be evaluated on a checklist of attributes and will be seen as being far less nimble and flexible if the markets, industry or external events turn against you.
How many times have we seen the whiz kid from finance or the guru from marketing ascend to the top spot, only to flounder in a role that requires more than just functional skills and results? Douglas Ivester at Coca-Cola, for example, had established an enviable record as an operational whiz while serving as the No. 2 to CEO Roberto Goizueta. Few questioned Ivester's functional prowess or begrudged his contributions to Coca-Cola's success. But some questioned his intangibles for the CEO's chair. As it turned out, Ivester never identified the gaps in his personal brand and was never able to establish the value of his leadership style. Over the course of his two-year tenure as CEO, concerns about his management style and Coke's business difficulties were both blamed for knocking billions off the company's value. When he mishandled a series of issues ranging from a racial discrimination case to tainted product in Belgium, he lost the confidence of Coca-Cola's constituencies altogether and resigned abruptly from the job that he had always wanted. From a business perspective, the timing was odd -- Coca-Cola's numbers were improving, but from a brand perspective, the company and Ivester realized that his brand just wasn't delivering any emotional value. And Coca-Cola learned that the concept of brand applies to its people as well as its products.
Warren Buffett, on the other hand, has created his functional brand as an investor who successfully capitalizes on value investments - with consistent and fully-realized personal traits of the homespun Everyman. (Never mind that he's one of the richest men in the world.) He lives up to his brand promise on the functional end by delivering results, achieving an enviable five-year growth rate for Berkshire Hathaway. He also has achieved emotional relevance through the consistency of his actions and his championing of issues that connect with his constituents. In recent years, for example, he's been a vocal critic of both inflated CEO salaries (his salary is $100,000 a year), as well as actions that undermine the true measures of value investing, such as the liberal use of stock options in executive pay packages. Mr. Buffet's brand is a complete one - and what's more impressive, he has maintained it extremely well over several decades. In the face of the most recent terrorist acts, he candidly described the significant business impact, while confidently articulating and sticking to his long-term strategy.
The key word in all this is consistency. Whether you're building a product brand or a personal brand, you need to demonstrate consistency across all internal and external interactions. It is important for leaders to realize that everything they say and do is working to either build or denigrate their brand. As with consumer products, a personal brand is a set of expectations and associations that are developed and delivered upon over time. The best leaders are conscious of this and not only focus on developing complete personal brands, but use them consistently, in every interaction, as a personal compass.
Brenda Smith is Managing Partner of the New York office of Prophet, a professional services firm that helps clients better manage their brands as a strategic asset. She has more than 15 years of brand and business strategy expertise, across the financial services, telecommunications, and consumer industries. John Kelly is a Senior Associate in the New York office of Prophet. He has more than seven years of experience in brand strategy, marketing, and advertising across a range of consumer and business-to-business categories.
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