Leadership branding

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Written by Naheed Mirza on 1 August 2012 in Features

Naheed Mirza offers a new, customer-driven take on leadership development

Leadership development comes in a number of guises: coaching, training or mentoring to name a few. What most of them share is an interest in developing the leadership skills and capability of the individual leader, usually with the objective of allowing him to demonstrate strong and persuasive leadership inside his organisation.

Leadership branding is a new approach that focuses on building collective or group leadership skills within an organisation - and the impact these skills have outside the organisation, on the customer.

The premise is that leaders' behaviours will have an impact on the behaviours of everyone within the organisation, which in turn has an impact on customers' perceptions and experience... and, ultimately, the success and growth of the organisation.

The customer is king

There are very few organisations that do not claim to put their customers first. It would seem logical, then, that customers should be at the heart of any leadership development programme. And yet, in reality, this rarely happens. In fact, it is not uncommon for organisations to spend millions each year on highly sophisticated customer care initiatives and marketing programmes - and then neglect to reflect this customer focus in their approach to developing their leaders.

Why is this? A common cause is lack of organisational co-ordination: leadership development is seen as the domain of HR and training, while customer retention is viewed as a sales and marketing concern. This deficiency in co-ordination is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst a serious risk to customer retention and organisational growth.

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation so it follows that they should be a primary focus of any leadership development initiative.

Leadership branding encourages leaders to see themselves as an integral and vital component of the overall customer offering. It helps them to develop a clear and deliverable picture of what they want to be known for by their employees and customers. A brand promise is about the products or services that will be delivered to, or experienced by, customers; a leadership brand is a clear statement supported by the collective leadership behaviours that will drive the promise. Typically the two will be very closely related. For example, Apple is renowned for its innovation and ability to capture people's imagination with creative and modern technology - and the late Steve Jobs embodied many of these same qualities.

A powerful brand

Most successful brands establish a deep emotional connection with their customers. Their leaders understand how their people and customers view the brand - and how to create value as their organisation delivers on its brand promise. They are also acutely aware that the value of their brand is damaged as soon as they fail to deliver on their brand promise.

Each interaction that a leader has with employees and customers has three possible outcomes: it reinforces the brand, it damages the brand; or it misses an opportunity to build the brand.

By failing to reinforce their brand with a compelling leadership brand, organisations are in danger of creating a situation in which their brand values are present in their products and marketing materials but rarely evident in the behaviour exhibited by leaders towards employees, and therefore by employees towards customers.

So, in many ways, leadership branding provides the 'missing link' that often exists between 'internal' leadership development (HR and training) and 'external' customer marketing (sales and marketing).

An example of this came to light during a recent and ongoing leadership branding initiative with a public sector leadership college. The college runs regular leadership development programmes for its senior managers nationally, but it was leadership branding that enabled delegates to see the interconnection between the leadership behaviours of senior managers, staff at the delivery level and the public (their 'customers'). Drawing parallels with the private sector, where customer relationships can make or break the business, helped to drive this message home. Senior managers were able to see their role in developing a more customer-centric culture - and how to develop a clear strategy to deliver it.

What is leadership branding?

To understand what kind of collective leadership behaviours an organisation needs in order to improve customer satisfaction and retention, it is important to first understand the customers' existing perceptions and experience - good or bad - and, more crucially, to identify what the organisation wants those perceptions and experience to be in the future. The gap between the two will be the basis for the kind of collective leadership behaviours necessary for sustainability and growth. For instance, this could be to work collaboratively rather than in silos to benefit the customer. This is particularly relevant for larger organisations whose customers may have several contacts across a number of departments - and is a challenge that leadership branding development frequently has to tackle.

The next stage is to put in place the steps to achieving those behaviours. Individual leadership skills and collective leadership can then work together to drive employee behaviour to deliver the desired customer experience.

Returning to the Apple example, the Apple brand (what this organisation is known for) is innovation and modern design; its leadership brand (what its leaders are known for) is creating exciting new products and services outside the industry norms, and the leadership behaviours will be focused on making this happen.

Many organisations put innovation at the core of the business. If that really is the case, examples of leadership behaviours could include ensuring that every team member has an opportunity for 'blue sky' thinking (either on- or off-site) and that senior managers will both lead by example and support their team members in having this opportunity. Actively encouraging collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas across teams, departments or geographical locations could be another example. Indeed, at Apple, cross-collaboration between different groups is an expectation, rather than a just a consideration.

But leadership branding is not only a concern for big, high-profile organisations like Apple. Small and medium-sized enterprises can benefit too. One example is a small but fast-growing digital media company in the West Midlands. As with most new and growing businesses, the leadership team had had little time to pause and reflect - all its time and energy had been spent on developing the business. They realised that they needed some time and space to think about how they engaged with their customers and how they wanted customers to perceive them. Leadership branding gave them the focus to do this.

The company's brand is based on "knowledge transfer made easy" so, as part of the process to develop a leadership brand, the team was particularly keen to develop leadership behaviours to support this promise.

The result was to identify a number of initial high-level statements, from which specific behaviours can follow to be embedded throughout the organisation. These statements captured the essence of what the leadership team was passionate about and, based on feedback from their customers, can help the company keep its competitive edge:

  • being accessible to employees and available to customers, building personal and engaging relationships
  • continuously developing their reputation as experts in their field, qualifying what they say with supporting facts and keeping their knowledge up to date
  • developing face-to-face relationships, actively seeking feedback and never being complacent
  • demonstrating drive, desire and ambition and maintaining high exposure to new projects and customers to maintain and develop knowledge
  • including employees in the preparation phase of new business development and project implementation so that they experience a 'parallel' and 'complete' journey.

How does leadership branding work?

Leadership branding tackles leadership strategy and development primarily from a collective, customer-focused perspective. It looks at leadership in terms of the organisation as a whole: what are the collective behaviours that an organisation's leaders need to demonstrate in order to have a positive impact on employee behaviour to, in turn, improve customers' perceptions and experience of the organisation?

As a customer-led approach to leadership development, it involves ensuring that both customers and employees are treated well at every 'touch point' they have with the organisation. If an organisation makes a brand promise to listen and be responsive to customers, for example, the leaders must make sure they reflect this in their dealings with employees too.

The objective with most leadership development programmes is to achieve a certain standard or expectation of the leader's ability inside the organisation. With leadership branding, the emphasis is more on understanding and fulfilling customer expectations. In other words, it provides that vital link - which is so often missing - to the customer.

Creating a solid leadership branding base

Developing a successful leadership brand requires a systematic but tailored approach, which should always start with interviewing key members of the senior management team and then gathering customer feedback to create a benchmark. It is important to understand how customers see the organisation now.

The next step is to assess existing individual leadership skills within the organisation, using a range of profiling techniques.

Once both of these preliminary benchmarking stages are complete, the real skill lies in working with senior management teams to develop a leadership strategy and behavioural framework based on a set of desirable collective behaviours that the organisation needs to exhibit.

What these behaviours should be will vary considerably from one organisation to another, but there are a number of 'base-building' behaviours that typically characterise organisations with a successful leadership brand. These include:

  • credibility Credible leaders encourage open and honest discussions, maintain confidentiality and inspire confidence
  • trustTo build trust, leaders need to demonstrate knowledge and expertise, as well as fairness and integrity. They should also recognise the importance of establishing a good rapport with their employees
  • communication Enhanced communications skills are a must for all leaders: the ability to establish rapport, interact with and influence people at all levels, articulate information and check that the message has been understood - as well as challenge ideas appropriately
  • consistency Often overlooked, this is an important collective skill for all leaders. It is about the ability to adapt to new or changing situations and strive for stability. Above all, it means reacting in a predictable way to unpredictable situations so that employees know where they stand
  • resilience Resilient leaders show self-confidence and composure. They are quick to resolve conflict, and maintain a rational and calm approach when facing challenges. They also avoid blame and self-criticism.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Other desirable behaviours will need to be developed in close consultation with the leaders themselves. After all, it is the leaders that will need to embrace and display them.

One caveat to bear in mind is that the leadership behavioural framework must be realistic. An effective leadership brand should not only tell a story that complements and enhances the organisation's overall brand, and reflects the expectations of the customer, it must also be 'lived and breathed' by every leader within the organisation. This is no easy task, so any leadership branding exercise will need to focus on identifying and bringing to life the leadership behaviours that really can make it happen.

The behaviours must be within the capabilities of all the leaders in the organisation - not only some. Otherwise, the leadership brand may fail to establish any strong roots or real credibility.

Measuring success

Once the behavioural framework has been established and embedded within the organisation, it is important to put in place robust ways of measuring success. These are likely to involve analysing employees' behaviour to see what impact the new leadership behaviours are having on them - and then carrying out follow-up research with customers to find out whether (and how) their perceptions of the organisation have changed.

Where a successful leadership branding strategy has been put in place, this follow-up customer research will, over time, reveal improved customer satisfaction.

What are the benefits?

When organisations get their leadership brand right, they are in a stronger position to meet and exceed customers' expectations. Their leadership brand is characterised by leaders who display a consistent set of behaviours driven by their desire to achieve that goal. By extending their focus beyond individual leadership to developing a true leadership brand, these organisations ensure that their employees know what to expect and feel engaged. They also give their customers confidence that leaders will respond to their needs in a consistent and appropriate way.

All of this leads to higher customer satisfaction and retention, which in turn means greater organisational sustainability. Ultimately, leadership branding offers savvy organisations, whose ambitions exceed 'weathering the storm' of the current economic environment, a way of aligning their leadership development and marketing efforts to lay the foundation stones for future growth.

About the author

Naheed Mirza is managing director of organisational development specialist Ipso Consulting. She can be contacted via www.ipsoconsulting.com



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