by Brett Minchington MBA and Dr David Kippen PhD
What do we talk about when we talk about leadership? Too often, we talk about personality, charisma and charm. Too often we talk about the type of traits that defines leadership as a very senior-executive, authoritarian affair.
In this article, we provide a somewhat different definition of leadership: “To lead is to decide.” Under this definition leadership has nothing to do with how many reports one has. It simply means having the opportunity and responsibility to make decisions that matter to others, on behalf of the organization.
To choose such a limited definition throws into relief some of the essential elements we define as branded leadership. It clearly shows that, at some points in our careers (and life), virtually all of us are leaders. As leaders, we all need to possess some fundamental skills such as strategic thinking, coaching, problem solving and managing change that too frequently are never taught at middle-management levels.
A brand leadership culture results in leadership status earned by doing, not by a hierarchical title. This means that your most effective leader may be the one serving your customers right now. It also means the process of training leaders needs to push further down into the organization than it typically does today. But take the challenge, think about leadership differently, and significant organizational benefits will be quick to surface at every level.
Defining branded leadership
So, what does it take to engender branded leadership? It begins with re-defining what it means to lead - and sharing that definition throughout the organization.
It’s not enough to say “we’re empowering employees at all levels to make choices.” The workforce must understand that every choice has consequences, and by thinking through the consequences of the choices they’re making and bringing others along, they’re exercising a form of leadership.
The key phrase here is “bringing others along.” Leadership begins with being granted authority to choose, but leadership and authority are fundamentally different. Authority is granted from above. Leadership is granted from below. So while having the authority to choose is a prerequisite to leading, the focus of training and transformation must be on how we communicate the rationale for the choices we’ve made to gain support from colleagues and reports.
Many organizations muddy these waters with efforts to teach charisma and persuasion. Whilst these programs are well-intentioned and do impart some effective general management skills, people are too often taught to personalize the message. Usually the training is based on acquiring personal skills in the political realm with the message, “it’s all about me.” Participants are often led to believe the goal is to become a charismatic leader, a professional politician in corporate clothes. Too often they take away the message that “leadership is about getting what I want,” which is, of course, exactly the wrong message from an organizational standpoint - and not terribly helpful to people in other facets of their lives, either.
What’s the answer? Surprisingly, it’s internal brand alignment. But to understand why, we’ll need to take a brief detour into brand theory.
Creating a culture for brand thinking
Brands exist to make people take action. They’re fundamentally consumer-directed decision making tools. They address the question, “why would our target consumer select our product or service over the other available choices?” Good brands have good answers built not on smoke and mirrors, but on real, sustainable marketplace differentiators. As a result, every brand has a built-in rule set. For example, if we make the world’s best laptops, the rules are about quality. If we make the world’s cheapest laptops, they’re about cost management. These marketplace differentiators and the implied promise they make to consumers force good companies to focus on the quantifiable elements of their internal activities that support the brand differentiators. So if the focus is on quality (Toyota), the result is lean manufacturing and asking the five whys when quality suffers. If the focus is on cost (WalMart), the result is on optimizing distribution systems and vendor costs.
The key to branded leadership is helping leaders at every level - leaders with the authority to choose to:
- Apply brand principles to their decision-making processes; and
- Use the brand’s authority, not their own, to gain willing followers.
While the steps are simple, implementing them successfully often isn’t. Companies must first create the right environment for decision making by clarifying the “brand rules” among senior leaders, then undergo a well-signposted change process to bring the workforce along.
Creating the right environment for decision making is all about gaining the right consensus at the executive or senior management level. As most organizations are organized into vertical hierarchies, it’s only at the very top that the necessary cross-pollination can take place. However, because the question of ‘how we decide’ crosses every functional area, making this happen takes more than a simple five-slide presentation. Your Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) may not be used to thinking in branded terms. They are more likely to work closely with the Chief Operating Officer (COO) on specific operational improvements. As a result, the organization’s assessment tools are likely to be based on productivity, not brand metrics. While this remains the case, it’s a risk to the brand and an impediment to the form of branded decision-making we recommend.
For example, a bank may advertise a focus on customer satisfaction, but if it rewards sales success and only penalizes satisfaction failures, individual managers are getting a different message about brand values than their customers. Does this mean scrapping sales goals? Of course not. It just means that the CHRO and the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) need to develop a closer objective partnership and a better understanding of why customer satisfaction is a necessary differentiator in the Bank’s marketplace. So in this example, what we might expect to see is an additional focus on satisfaction in the Bank’s rewards and recognition systems - which in turn enables satisfaction criteria to be used as decision-making criteria.
Once leadership are aligned on a shared set of leadership principles at the Executive or Senior Leadership Team level, they’re ready to be rolled out throughout the organization. In our experience, the best way to do this is to start with a cascade through the top ranks of leadership--down to three levels below the senior leadership team. For large, distributed organizations the rest of the rollout works best if it combines elements of cascade supplemented by eLearning or local training and a robust communications plan.
Aligning the customer and employee promise through branded leadership
Most companies have a different strategy for each component of the brand portfolio. The marketing function is usually responsible for managing the corporate and consumer brand and HR is usually responsible for the employer brand. There is significant value in the human resources, Marketing and Communication functions working closely with executive and the senior leadership to ensure the organisation capitalises and leverages the ‘sum of the capabilities of a branded leadership culture.’
One of the ‘stand outs’ for companies that recognize the importance of branded leadership and it’s link to employee engagement and customer value and ultimately business success is the hotel giant Ritz-Carlton. In a report from The Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement, Sue Stephenson, the hotel’s senior vice president of human resources, points out that even employees who have no contact with guests affect the company’s financial success. “The employee washing dishes or cleaning silver never interacts with the customers in the restaurant, but they understand their role, which is that the cleanest dishes and shiniest silver will help create a great culinary experience in the restaurant.”
“Ritz-Carlton constantly reinforces to employees how they contribute to satisfying customers, and thus generating profits. Hotel management frequently holds beginning-of shift “pep rallies” at which exceptional customer service stories are shared. In addition, every employee has the green light to expend up to $2,000 to “delight a guest” who has had a customer-service issue. Strong compensation and rewards are also a large part of the Ritz-Carlton mix,” Ms Stephenson says.
Implementing a branded leadership program
Whilst every organization is different, every implementation plan should touch on at least the following steps:
1. Agree on brand differentiators as fundamental decision tools
- Work with your heads of operations to understand “why we do things this way around here” then work with your CMO to understand why the marketplace rewards your current brand differentiators.
- If there’s any daylight at all between these perspectives (see the banking example earlier in the article), facilitate discussions about how to close the gap.
2. Assess the current decision-making process
- What criteria does your organization use to define leadership?
- What do you need to do to move your leadership to a more universal, inclusive definition?
- Which leaders need to put their support behind this changed definition?
- Work with the leadership team to align the answers to these questions with the brand-driven differentiators.
3. Define leadership simply
- Distil the product of these discussions down to a few, simple principles. Your goal should be simple enough to fit on a cocktail napkin, memorable enough to recite after hearing them once.
- Validate with leaders. Gather their commitment to participate in a cascade-based process to explain them.
4. Managing the change process
- Transforming an organisational culture from one that is fixated on decision making authority residing only in the top ranks into a branded leadership culture involves change which needs to be managed carefully in an open and transparent environment.
- Clearly define the reason and communicate the vision for change throughout the organisation.
- Communications should begin with a clearly defined vision, objectives and the benefits of a branded leadership culture.
5. Use internal communication tools
- With increasingly dispersed global workforces and the pace of change there’s is a need for internal communication tools to replace the traditional face-face meetings to ensure decision making does not become clog in the executive suite and employees are empowered to make decisions which support the customer promise.
- IBM use an internal social networking platform called ‘Beehive’ and found one of the main uses of the network is not for social chat on company time, but for connecting and collaborating with colleagues across different time zones which collectively results in a culture where the collective wisdom of the workforce drives innovation and decision making across all levels of the organisation.
6. Align rewards and recognition
- Traditionally companies reward leaders based on transactional measures such as sales, staffing costs and whether budgets have been achieved or exceed - so this is where leaders focus their efforts at the expense of employee engagement.
- Recognising and rewarding leaders who measure high on engaging employees and tracking this to financial outcomes is a win-win for all - the company, the leader and the employee.
- Leaders tend to focus their efforts on where they know they are being measured so they often pass off employee engagement as merely “the soft stuff!” This is your--and their-opportunity to help the workforce join the mission of the brand.
7. Connected thinking
- Encourage collaboration between business units responsible for the corporate, consumer and employer brand strategies. Use ‘connected thinking’ to enhance understanding of the role and importance of aligning the customer promise with leadership values, behaviours and actions.
- Marketing wants to target consumers, and human resources really does the same thing - target potential employees. Communications is the function that ties it all together. Collaboration that leverages synergies will result in a brand leadership culture where the customer promise is aligned with the employee promise.
Successful implementation requires strong commitment and visible sponsorship from senior leaders. But surprisingly, it’s not the uphill push you might expect. In our experience, people at most organizations show up wanting to do the right thing. They want to contribute to their organization’s success, the more closely they’re able to align their behaviors to brand drivers, the more engaged they become. As engagement and empowerment are so closely linked, the empowering message at the heart of decision-based, branded leadership, tends to be warmly embraced at every level.
About the authors
Brett Minchington MBA
Brett Minchington MBA, Chairman/CEO of the Employer Brand International is a recognised global authority, strategist, author and corporate advisor on employer branding. Brett’s expertise in Employer Branding led him to author “Your Employer Brand attract-engage-retain” in 2006 which has since been sold in over 42 countries. Brett has chaired Conference Summits and delivered employer branding key note addresses, executive briefings and masterclass events to thousands of leaders in more than 30 cities in 20 countries and has been published in HR, Marketing and Management magazines globally including The Economist and Business Week. He is also a regular commentator on employer branding for the media. Brett consults to national and global brands on employer brand strategy. His new book "Employer Brand Leadership - A Global Perspective" defines a practical approach to building a world class employer brand.
David Y. Kippen, PhD
Dr. David Kippen is President and CEO of Evviva Brands. With a background spanning advertising and communications and a global client base, David is a globally-recognized leader in brand strategy. David's past clients include category-leading brands like Ameriprise Financial, Bain & Company, Burger King, Catholic Healthcare West, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Dell, Disney, E.ON, HP, HSBC, General Mills, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Nokia, Premera Blue Cross, Teva and T-Mobile.
David has held leadership roles in several top associations that support the human resources and communications professions. He is currently a member of SHRM's Performance Management Task Force and an active member of the Council of Communication Management. He has served as President and Chief Executive of the International Association of Business Communicators San Francisco chapter. He also served for three years on SHRM's Special Expertise Panel on Consulting and Outsourcing and as a Member at Large on the board of directors of Western Pension & Benefits Conference. David holds a bachelor of arts in English from San Francisco State University (magna cum laude) and PhD in English (Rhetoric) from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He completed doctoral work as a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford-UC Berkeley Joint Center for African Studies.