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As a CEO of your organization, you are likely thinking about investing in your personal brand, but you are likely also hesitant. My personal branding agency works with GenX CEOs from across the globe, and I can assure you that you’re not alone in your hesitation.
As a GenX’er — member of the often called “forgotten generation” — you did not grow up with a cellphone in your hand and did not develop a habit of sharing every single opinion and all your whereabouts online. Many of the leaders we speak with hesitate to put themselves out into the public eye because they have no affinity for the spotlight. Instead, they want to focus internally — on building a world-class organization, scaling teams and inspiring enviable organizational cultures. And of course, many CEOs have internalized the importance of discretion – choosing battles with careful deliberation to avoid any controversy.
The importance of personal branding for modern leaders
And yet, the world we live in has changed. Hiding behind the proverbial curtains of our organizations is no longer an option. Research shows that nearly 50% of Millennials expect CEOs to speak out, and this number is growing year to year. Silent CEOs risk criticism from employees, the media and certainly consumers.
Edelman Trust Barometer study showed that workers expected their employers to take a stance on a variety of societal issues, including vaccine hesitancy (84%), climate change (81%), automation (79%) and racism (79%).
As a result, we have seen the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Salesforce and PayPal speaking out about LGBTQ rights. The CEO of Merck has spoken up on racial injustice. And the CEO of Walmart took a position on gun control.
Whether generated internally or externally, the pressure to have a more visible public profile is more prevalent for you than ever. And it certainly comes with a myriad of risks to mitigate. The court of public opinion can be merciless when it comes to hot-topic issues. Just ask the CEO of Anheuser-Busch about it!
And before you use the Brendan Whitworth example as another reason why a low profile is the winning strategy, let me offer a paradigm shift. I posit that the very reason Whitworth and Anheuser-Busch have faced the amount of backlash we all saw is not because of a public stance, but rather because of a knee-jerk decision to capitalize on a trend. The trend of an influencer-du-jour.
You see, in branding — both corporate and personal — it is crucial to first understand what your brand actually is and what it stands for, and then remain “on brand” across all marketing efforts. Anheuser-Busch did not do that. And neither did many of the “canceled” CEOs you think of when considering your own public presence.
Let’s use their examples as a reminder of the crucial importance of going through the process of brand discovery, creating a personal brand architecture, and then aligning all communication to remain “on brand” at all times.
It all begins with identifying a brand positioning for your personal brand. And, by the way, if the term “personal branding” feels overly narcissistic and unrelatable, simply replace it with “leadership branding.”
What is it and how do you identify yours? In personal branding, brand positioning is a way to express who you are or what you stand for in a singular word or phrase. In order to define yours, you need to zoom out — away from what you do, away from the vertical you serve, and as close as possible to the essence of your core beliefs.
A personal brand positioning is typically a reflection of a core:
If you have discovered your purpose, the WHY in Simon Sinek’s terms, the question to ask is: WHY is that your WHY? Please forgive the tautology, and focus on uncovering what core belief fuels that purpose.
For one of our clients, his brand positioning is expressed as “timeless principles.” This is a reflection of his core values: He is someone who believes in the power of a handshake over a signed agreement and investing in gold over crypto. Another brand positioning we developed for a client was “interiority” — the “inner space” of physical spaces, with feelings over things at the core. Her WHY as an interior design entrepreneur is to give people a sense of a home, and the core belief behind that “why” is that spaces are built out of things, but their key purpose is to create feelings and memories.
My brand positioning is centered around “radical authenticity.” I believe in taking a stance against censorship in every possible form, including self-censorship and censorship of every opposing opinion (cancel culture is the stuff of nightmares for me).
Here are some exercises to help you uncover yours:
Build out your “lifeline.” Identify the most significant moments of your life, both personal and professional. Look for patterns. What keeps surfacing for you? Engage a qualitative researcher or a personal branding agency if you are stuck.
List out your core values. Is there one that expresses the true essence of who you are?
Do you have a point of view on something that is so unshakeable that you would defend it at any cost?
Now take what you uncovered and hand it to a branding specialist — or put on your own creative hat — to turn it into a concept that you can “own.”
What to do next
This is merely step one. It is likely the hardest piece of the branding puzzle, but it’s the one that allows you to align all of the other pieces of the personal branding architecture. Before you step out into the spotlight, you will need to have clarity on your:
Brand descriptors: How do you want to be perceived?
Brand voice: How do you want to sound, both digitally and offline?
Content pillars: What topics do you want to be associated with, and which ones do you want to stay away from?
CEO story: Gone are the days of the boring bios that nobody wanted to write, let alone read. Research shows that storytelling helps release cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin in the brain — all chemicals that enhance human connection, empathy and an emotional response. Replace your corporate-sounding bio with one rooted in storytelling. You will use its components for your social media profile, speaker page and when you’re introduced at events.
I spend my days speaking about the importance of personal branding with CEOs individually and from global stages. The hesitations are the same regardless of geography and, yet, so is the understanding that personal branding is inevitable for the modern leader. With 82% of people more likely to trust a company when its senior executives are active on social media, and with 77% of consumers more likely to buy when the CEO of the business uses social media, your impact on the perception of your organization is more significant than ever. Will 2024 be the year you build and scale your personal brand?