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Branding leaders

In "Building a Leadership Brand" (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007), Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood say that companies should in effect brand their leadership styles. For example:
  • GE, which is known for “turning imaginative ideas into leading products and services,” is also known for having the type of manager who is “a strong conceptualist as well as a decisive thinker.”
  • Johnson & Johnson, which states that “our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services,” has the type of manager who is “known for being socially responsible….committed to building consumer trust, to product quality, and to safety.”

The authors state that “building a strong leadership brand requires that companies follow five principles.”

  • Do the basics of leadership development well: “First, they have to do the basics of leadership—like setting strategy and grooming talent—well.”
  • Be customer-focused: “Second, they must ensure that managers internalize external constituents’ high expectations of the firm.”
  • Evaluate leaders according to customer perceptions: “Third, they need to evaluate their leaders according to those external perspectives.”
  • Invest in additional leadership development: “Fourth, they must invest in broad-based leadership development that helps managers hone the skills needed to meet customer and investor expectations.”
  • Measure success: “And finally, they should track their success at building a leadership brand over the long term.”

The authors state that many companies are off the mark in their leadership development practices because they tend to focus too much on individualistic approaches and not enough on grooming leaders to stand for something specific in the eyes of “customers and investors.” The result? “Leadership practices are piecemeal and are seldom integrated with the firm’s brand.”

Also, oddly enough, focusing on individualistic development leads companies in the direction of a “competency model that identifies a set of generic traits—vision, direction, energy, and so on.” This is the difference between “leaders and leadership”—leaders are individuals, but leadership involves “the methods that secure the ongoing good of the firm.”

I agree that companies should brand their leadership styles, but think that it is difficult to measure whether they have ultimately succeeded. Perhaps the best proof is in the (qualitative) pudding—in asking employees what leaders stand for—whether they embody the brand or not. I say ask employees and not customers because it is employees who are daily in touch with the behavior of their leaders. Unfortunately, in this article, the employee perspective is overlooked.

One last point: I liked the Leadership Brand Assessment the authors provided, but am not sure I should reprint the whole thing here. It is worth reading the full article, if you can get it from the library or pay for it at HBR.org.

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