How to be a brand's leader

By Charles Mak

Repositioning and branding activities can shape a new identity

To make sure a brand remains unique, it is often necessary to update and reposition it on a regular basis. This helps to keep it "alive" and, more importantly, still noticed by consumers in a world where a company's brand, though intangible, is often one of its most valuable assets.

According to Sandra Mak, chief executive officer of A-World Consulting Limited and the A-World Group, every organisation is openly or implicitly engaged in branding activities and aims to benefit from the value created.

Staff at every level directly contribute towards an organisation's brand and influence the degree of loyalty, but it is the leaders who will generally shape how it looks and is perceived. "Therefore, the values and attitudes seen in a leader – in effect the leader's personal brand – must be compatible and aligned with the corporate brand," Ms Mak says. "They should be integrated and consistent with the organisation's values."

Branding is not all about perceptions, but the personal attributes and behaviour of top executives often affect people's first impressions of a company. Therefore, in leadership branding, it is vital to take an objective look at stakeholder perceptions and to influence them if necessary.

"Personalities don't change but behaviour does," says Ms Mak. She stresses that it is important to recognise this and to seek to align behaviour rather than change people. A brand exemplified by its leaders is credible only when their personalities are credible and consistent. "The image and the personality must be compatible and sustainable in order to be convincing," she advises. "People must understand what the organisation represents and identify with that."

Important steps
For this, there are two key steps. Firstly, executives must fully understand their role and realise their behaviour represents not just themselves. Secondly, they must remember that, in branding, perception is reality and what people see counts the most. "This kind of recognition is important," Ms Mak says. "You must stay objective and see yourself through other people's eyes."

There are three pillars which uphold a leadership brand: intellectual capacity, health and energy, and character and style.

The first requires a leader to have knowledge, insight and experience. These attributes are fundamental to projecting the person's character and talents. Being obviously healthy and energetic allows the leader to display dynamism, likeability, and the willingness to reach out and connect with people. Finally, character and style will tend to differ in every case, since there is no "one size fits all" set of guidelines. This third pillar is arguably the most difficult to build consciously, but is often what differentiates good leaders from great ones.

The essential thing is to find the right balance between character and behaviour. Good leaders all have their own style: Bill Clinton has his charm and charismatic way of speaking; Ronald Reagan was known for his grace and self-deprecating humour. As a leader, each was able to "connect" with people by knowing how to show their "best" side.

Communication excellence
Whatever their position or industry, every leader must be an excellent communicator and leave no one in any doubt about the corporate values and culture. Public speaking and interpersonal skills are therefore critical for leadership branding. Passion and enthusiasm must be shown whenever there is a chance to communicate, and the leader must aim to influence and have an impact on every audience.

Ms Mak's advice for effective communication starts with understanding what makes the audience tick and preparing key messages to deliver. It is then important to have at hand some facts or examples to substantiate or illustrate the message. She points out that there are no shortcuts to becoming an expert communicator. It simply takes continuous practice.

Underpinning all of this is a respect and genuine care for others. There is also a need to recognise what the audience expects to hear. For example, if they are not a group of technicians, then don't lapse into a lot of technical jargon.

A leadership brand also depends on new knowledge and insights to keep it alive. It should be driven by a constant quest for inspiration, excitement, and ways to rejuvenate. In Ms Mak's opinion, the whole process of leadership branding should start early in a career as part of the training process. Individuals should look for role models and set targets for themselves. They should concentrate on developing the right outlook at work and in life and learn to modify their behaviour in broad accordance with the three pillars of leadership branding.

Personal advancement and business success will follow. As people work on their own leadership branding, they will interact more effectively with others, be perceived differently and make use of a broader range of skills.

Sandra Mak is a leading professional in corporate communications, branding, public affairs and crisis management. She has over 20 years' experience and was previously group corporate relations head of CLP Holdings Ltd. She is now chief executive officer of A-World Consulting Limited and the A-World Group, a renowned consultancy offering expertise in public relations, crisis management, government relations, business strategy, training and human resources. She will speak at the Executive Leadership Branding Seminar 2005 on 19 May, 2005 at Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers.

Taken from Career Times 13 May 2005
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