Most of us appreciate the importance of a brand to a company like McDonalds, a service like FedEx, or a product like the iPad. But what do people mean when they talk about personal brands? And, why exactly do you need
a brand, anyway?
In essence, a brand is a thought (accompanied by a feeling) that lives in the mind of another person. Your brand is the shorthand way people think about you and decide how they want to interact with you. In product marketing, there’s a saying that applies to personal brands as well: “A brand is more than a word; it’s the beginning of a conversation.”
The question you have to ask is, what’s the conversation people are having about you? When you consider some of the iconic, name-brand business leaders at the helm of great organizations today, you can’t help but notice they have at least one thing in common—a well-understood personal brand. Their reputations are well known, and in fact the values they represent define the very DNA of the organizations they lead.
Alan Mulally led a miraculous turnaround at Ford Motor Company by influencing a complex, almost tribal and stifling leadership culture. His brand of discipline and exuberance reshaped the way they do business at Ford. After refusing to accept federal bailout money, Ford surprised the world by rapidly turning a profit and dramatically increasing market share.
Steve Jobs returned to Apple some years ago after being fired from the company he founded. His passion and energy for creating truly innovative products have changed how the world communicates. His brand of elegant, useful innovation took root early in life when he enrolled in a calligraphy course after dropping out of college, influencing even the elegant typeface that became a hallmark of Apple computers.
Richard Branson is a fearless entrepreneur who launched his first company, Virgin Records, out of the back of a car, growing it to a multi-billion dollar global empire of 400 companies. His daring approach to life is embodied in the culture of the companies he leads. His attitude about new ventures, which permeates Virgin companies, is not to ask “why,” but rather, “why not?”
Anne Mulcahy’s passion for the people and culture of Xerox Corporation rescued the once-great American brand from near extinction and restored it to profitability. Since Mulcahy grew up in the company, part of her brand was an unwavering belief in the Xerox values, which, when communicated, ignited new energy and made Xerox’s people believe in themselves.
Larry Page returned to the helm at Google in 2011, taking over for Eric Schmidt after the company Page co-founded was perceived to be losing its innovative edge to competitors like Facebook. Though barely tested as a CEO, Page’s reputation as an innovator was already playing out within months of his being named CEO, as the company launched Google + and received rave reviews.
Defining your brand
These are all compelling examples, but what can these leaders teach you about building your own brand? Quite a bit. These stellar leaders are people who know who they are and what their leadership is all about. When the executives of your company go looking for the leaders of tomorrow, they will seek out people who know what they’re all about. They’ll ask: “Who in this group of rising talent will be able to motivate, inspire, and align our people to achieve our vision?”
To get ahead, it’s a given that you must be highly competent, whether you are managing projects or in charge of a business’s P & L. However, once they know you can do the work, your boss, or the boss in a company that may someday hire you, will ask if you’re the kind of person who can influence and inspire others to achieve great things.
Your brand, or reputation, at the most fundamental level, answers the question: “Who are you?” When people understand who you are and believe in you, you acquire influence. The question “who are you?” can be intimidating. However, it’s easy to answer if you examine the events that have shaped you. Each of us has lived a life, with ups and downs that have given us powerful, character-building lessons. I’ve seen leaders who consciously embrace their brands, who know who they are and communicate it effectively, become rising stars. They stand out among their colleagues and accelerate their careers because of the impact of their brands.
The elements of a strong, leader brand are often misunderstood. For example, is personality important? Sure, it’s one aspect of who you are. But it isn’t the sum of your brand. You may be analytical, smart, outgoing, engaging, or a good listener—and these are good qualities—but they do not make a brand. Likewise, the outer you—often referred to as executive presence, from wardrobe and grooming to body language—matter, too. So do your energy and passion.
However, the core of your brand is your character, the values that define you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and a reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
You come to understand the real thing by thoughtfully considering your wins, losses, successes, failures, and experiences. A brand or character isn’t something you can manufacture; it is what is authentic about you. Your skill in communicating casts the shadow that becomes your reputation.
The first step to discovering your brand is to embrace the idea that you have a brand, that it has power, and that you can harness it to accelerate your career. Once you have a clear view of the values and principles that make you the leader you are, it is important to communicate them to others; to build trust, gain influence, and position yourself as an exceptional leader.
So, as a rising leader, how do you raise your brand awareness and become a leader of tomorrow?
- Tell stories that share your value with your team; identify situations you have faced in your career, talk about the lessons, and help them see how these lessons are relevant to them today.
- Share success stories about your team with your boss, the management group, or board of directors; highlight the values that you believe are making things work.
- Make yourself visible by networking, developing strong relationships, and getting to know people who share your values; look for people who walk their talk and emulate your desire to be a leader who motivates and inspires.
- Write articles for industry publications or blogs and websites that highlight not only what you know, but how you lead, why it works, and how others can also be successful.
- Speak at industry events and conferences to raise your profile. Talk not just about products and services, but of a way of doing things that highlights what you believe in.
Above all, think about your brand, because other people do. On your way to the top, learn who you are and communicate that to others. Because who you are will be a deciding factor in your success.