What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the names Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Richard Branson? I’m guessing you’ll say they are all rich, famous or perhaps even industry icons. While it’s true that they all enjoy wealth, fame and success, the most important element they have in common, the one factor I will argue that has made them the most successful is that they have discovered and nurtured their own personal brand and integrated that brand into the companies they run.
So what is a personal brand? Your brand is in essence, your reputation. Reputation is the most important asset you have in business. To be sure, that reputation is the perceptionabout who you are, as a leader, and a person. Your reputation isn’t who you are, but rather, what others believe about you.
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 for the good of the enterprise. Let’s lower our altitude and take an example of a CEO who’s not as well-known but who expanded his business using his own personal brand.
Many of you may not know the name Robert Stephens, but I bet that most of you have heard of the “Geek Squad” – a group of nerdy, techie guys and gals who arrive at your home eager to fix your computer. Robert is a genius when it comes to corporate branding. He wanted his technicians to stand out in the crowd and they did, arriving in black and white VW Bugs and vans that looked like keystone cop cars or paddy wagons. Each employee had black pants, a white shirt, a pocket protector and the Geek Squad logo. A stickler for detail, Stephens even designed shoes with Geek Squad reverse-stamped on the soles so that when a tech walked through a puddle, the logo would remain on the sidewalk.
Those creative ideas helped him gain market share but Stephens’ personal brand – delivering exceptional customer service was what attracted a buyer for his corporate brand. When the company was acquired by Best Buy, Stephens set up personal contact e-mails and phone lines to address consumer problems. He was one of the first CEOs to monitor all social media and immediately respond to anyone who blogged or tweeted about Geek Squad, positive or negative and people noticed.
Today, Best Buy is struggling with revenues and saw one competitor, Circuit City go out of business. The jury is still out as to whether or not Best Buy will remain in business in the years to come but just this month, retail analysts predicted Geek Squad’s customer-centric focus may be the driving force to sustainability.
Another CEO who steered his company into the fast lane using his personal brand is Frank Blake. Again, many of you may not be familiar with the name, but if you own a home, you’ve probably spent more time than you’ll admit in one of his Home Depot locations.
Shortly after being named CEO in 2007, he read online that 10,000+ people agreed with a blog written about the chain’s poor customer service. He immediately addressed the concerns of the public and announced he was forming a task force to address the problems (which he then outlined to show that he understood the concerns), accepted blame and apologized to customers using many different forums. The tide began to turn. In 2008 amid the housing bust, Blake was named one of the Best Managers of the Year in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Later, in 2009, Blake accepted an annual pay package less than one-quarter of his predecessor’s illustrating he cared more about the company than his own personal gain, and also found creative non-monetary ways to motivate employees by giving them greater decision-making power, and rewarding them with award patches to be clipped to their aprons.
Today, Home Depot’s fourth quarter profit jumped 72% despite the fact the housing market still hasn’t rebounded from the recession.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Your character is the tree. That tree has been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by its environment. Character building moments defined you as a leader and make you strong. These moments, or stories, are the essence of your leader brand – they form your unique character and personality.
Your brand, or reputation, cannot be manufactured. A successful brand is built on what is real and authentic about you. Authenticity is critical. People know an authentic brand when they see one. It gives you enormous influence, and also enhances your company’s reputation.
An example of such authenticity was heard around the world when Sidney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior, suspended one of the label’s most popular designers, John Galliano, who went on a racist rant at a French restaurant.
After the suspension was announced, footage was leaked from a television interview in which Galliano again made racist remarks. Toledano, who is Jewish, responded quickly firing Galliano condemning him in the strongest terms saying “Mr. Galliano’s words…which are in total contracidction with the essential values that have always been defended by the Christian Dior house.” In taking swift action, he demonstrated that no one is above the brand and that the company will not tolerate bigotry. Natalie Portman, face of Dior beauty line who is also Jewish, said she never again associate with Galliano. The CEO is the keeper of the company culture. His actions protected the Dior brand and spoke volumes about Toledano’s personal brand.
When Abraham Lincoln talked about character and reputation 150 years ago, branding wasn’t a word associated with leadership, but his words form the fundamental principals behind discovering your personal brand. Each of us possesses our own unique brand and we can harness that brand for the good of our enterprise. As the tree grows, so does the shadow of your reputation. Growing and nurturing it will have a positive impact on your career, your company and the world around you.