Why and how to build your leadership brand

December 2nd, 2019

It feels shifty to start a discussion about “personal branding” without acknowledging the very concept has been tainted by confusion between savvy, reality-based promotion and being a self-aggrandizing ass on social media.

In fact, most experts agree a solid personal brand isn’t something you can whip up online with a bunch of “look at me” posts. The real deal is a combination of who you already are and who you aspire to be, and, in a business setting, it functions as a promise to your customers about your approach to them and to the products or services you provide. In this vital sense, a personal brand is an important point of differentiation between you and your customers, and it needs to be taken seriously as a component of your marketing.

To start, let’s look at the interplay between a personal brand and a business brand. A business brand encapsulates the what, when, how, and for whom of your service offerings. A personal brand, as it relates to business ownership, highlights the leader’s objectives and natural talents for achieving the goals of the business.

Headwinds

A leadership brand can be faked, as anything in the realm of interpersonal relationships can be, but it’s hard to deceive observers over time. That’s because leadership branding is a function of concrete actions and verifiable outcomes — the successful follow-through on promises, implicit or explicit — and is, as a result, synonymous with a business leader’s quality of character.

Now let’s consider why business branding and leadership branding has to be developed in tandem. In December 2018, Gallup found that stock brokers — here a proxy for financial advisors of all registrations — were trusted by less than half of Americans. In fact, only four of the top 20 job types rated lower than broker, including such luminaries as telemarketers and car sellers. Starting out, as advisors do, against a headwind of distrust and dislike, it’s vital that leadership branding in the the financial-advice space be built as a core quality of the business rather than pegged to the behavior of a single individual, or the prestige (or lack of it) of a particular profession.

One function of positive leadership branding for an independent financial advisor is to inspire other advisors, particularly those at the same firm, to be more attuned to clients. This facet of leadership branding can be brought to life through educational initiatives spearheaded by the leader. Formally, this can take the form of videos and blog posts aimed not at clients and prospects, but at fellow advisors. It can also roll out in a simple open-door policy that encourages other advisors to share work-related ideas in a frank and non-judgmental environment.

Wasted words

Leadership branding can also be enhanced by PR. The typical PR write-up, on the occasion of an important hire or business milestone, sets out to make the company look big, “strategic,” and utterly on-track. It lays out the thing touted — the deal, the hire, the one-billionth burger served — highlights company leadership, emphasizes why it’s in keeping with the overarching plan, touches on general services provided, and — if the company is feeling a bit “out there” — it ends with a loosey-goosey indication of where the company is headed.

But there is nothing of broad value to an unbiased reader in any of that. There’s nothing to promote the leadership branding of the featured executives. There’s nothing to exemplify the firm’s unique take on its services. And with no insight of any value to reader, there’s no reason for anybody to care.

Now imagine you’re a car enthusiast reaching out to tell like-minded friends about a convenient and economical lift kit you bought for your truck. You’d be eager to tell how you discovered it, and how you overcame initial doubts and misgivings to make a purchase you’re now thrilled to share. Your target audience, attracted by a common interest, would take immediate interest. Even those with little initial interest in trucks may be charmed by your enthusiasm.

The point here is simple. Following the typical PR playbook can rob you of opportunities to underline that your business was built by its leaders as an expression of their passions — and that those passions extend logically to better products, services and customer care.

But it’s hard to buck tradition. You may know, intellectually, that today’s world of social media calls for messaging styles that are more intimate and, well, human than old approaches, but your instincts — and quite possibly your marketing consultants — will pull you into old ways of thinking. They may insist that the tradition of sterile and bloodless PR must be maintained, and that it’s actually better to be forgotten than to stand out.

Today, that’s a fast path to oblivion.

Be yourself

Whether you’re a sole practitioners or head of a large firm, the principles of leadership branding stay the same. Set up your channels, continue promoting your enterprise’s services and products — but also launch a separate endeavor to stand out as a thought leader unique to the business or brand you are building at the moment.

Nascent brands that inspire grass-roots participation and instil ethical habits are tomorrow’s leaders, and their marketing reflects it. This approach, spearheaded by you as part (or all) of the company’s leadership, is individualized in that it is, and must be, a reflection of you. It thrives on personal insight, sharing, emotional intelligence, and a nearly unquenchable desire to be about something more than yourself — more even than the company you lead.

While your business brand should reflect some of these attributes, your leadership brand must embrace them. Worry less about sounding clever, push away the instinct to be acceptable to everyone at all times, and seize the rare opportunity to express your true self. Individualization is achieved by sharing details, not necessarily by introducing earth-shattering concepts. Stop trying to sell and start telling stories, and your unique leadership brand will start taking shape.

There are many platforms for personal branding, from blog posts and podcasts to social-media engagement and public speaking. Whatever delivery method you choose though, it’s vital to be memorable. One can of course achieve memorability by being obnoxious or outrageous, but that yields diminishing returns. It’s better to make an impression with a willingness to share your off-time activities and insights. Examples include sharing lessons drawn from fun with friends and family to what keeps you up at night, and what really thrills you. Experts in leadership-brand building know this sort of individuation strikes a positive chord with your audience, and automatically makes you memorable.