It can happen to anyone.
It could be caused by a specific event, or it might be a slow degradation over time. Perhaps it stems from a rumor. Or maybe from a lack of visibility to your team. Often, it’s from a weak or blind spot that is more noticeable to others than it is to you.
Regardless of the root of the problem, when your leadership brand is stained, it can be difficult to recover.
I’ve seen it happen to rock-solid leaders. They aren’t bad people. In fact, often they are lauded and applauded.
As painful as a brand issue can be for a leader, there is good news: it IS possible to recover your brand, through a very intentional process.
Brand vs. Reputation
Before I go too deeply into the brand recovery process, I’d like to clarify the difference between reputation and brand. I’m borrowing this differentiation from ideas derived from marketing concepts, but it applies to your personal brand, as well.
Reputation is what others say about you based on their shared perceptions. Brand is what is observed about what you say and how you behave.
The key is to get your brand (your observed actions and behaviors) in line with your reputation (others’ perceptions). This will create the most authentic experience of you for others around you. In order to do this, you must learn more about both others’ perceptions and your own behaviors.
Begin with Awareness
If you suspect (or have been told) there is an issue with your leadership brand, it’s important to first gather more information. No matter your leadership competencies or experiences, there are stories about you. You must understand what those stories are before they sprout legs and start walking around on their own.
A great way to garner more awareness of yourself and your brand is through a 360-feedback process. If you’re not familiar with these, it’s a way to capture input from others who relate to you. There are online tools that gather this information and summarize it, or my recommendation is that you can engage an unbiased party to perform interviews.
The intent is to take a hard look at yourself and your leadership brand.
Identify Key Stakeholders
The next step is to identify people who will give you honest feedback. At this point, people usually ask, “How many stakeholders should I identify?”
While that’s a great question, the number of stakeholders providing feedback really depends on your specific situation and your organization. The quality of the information is much more important than the quantity of participants. But, for those of you who need a number, I tend to typically see between seven and twelve stakeholder participants for interviewing. Online assessment numbers will probably be higher.
When identifying your stakeholders, think of people with whom you interface. Think of people who may be reached by your influence and your reputation.
Now, go a little deeper. Your leadership brand is at stake.
Who are influencers to this? Who do you need to impact?
You are not looking for sugar-coated information. You are not seeking feedback from one group of people. You are seeking to gather diverse, possibly difficult-to-hear, information to aid you in understanding your leadership brand.
Take your time on this step and be very intentional with your choices.
Determine Key Questions to Uncover the Reality
As important as who you ask, is what you ask. This is where you’ll want to engage some help, if you haven’t already.
An executive coach can help you get to very specific information about your leadership brand by determining the most important data that needs to be uncovered. The questions should be open-ended and encouraging to the participants to provide specific examples, if they can.
And when crafting the questions, your coach should be prepared to ask the “next level” question to uncover true perceptions and observed behaviors. It is like peeling the layers of an onion.
Online 360 feedback tools are great when you are gathering general leadership feedback, but my personal preference is to help my clients capture deep qualitative information through face-to-face interviews as an unbiased party. When you’re dealing with a potential caustic situation with your leadership brand, it’s important to get specific, and to go deep.
Confidential in-person interviews are the best way to get the hard data. And the person performing the interview should reiterate the confidentiality of the responses.
For this, it’s important you engage someone, like your executive coach, who can quickly build trust with your stakeholders and will truly hold their specific responses in confidence.
Summarize and Plan
Once the interviews are complete, your executive coach should take the data and provide a summary of information for you. You should expect to learn general observations about your reputation, as well as specific behaviors, incidents, or gaps that are observed.
This may be hard to hear. Prepare for that.
My advice is to first just listen. Come from a place of curiosity. Do not seek to justify, redirect blame, or figure out who said what.
Sometimes it helps to take a few days to let the information settle. But as soon as it is settled, it’s time to form an action plan.
This information is a gift. Work with your coach to develop a plan to get better. Understand your blind spots. Overcome your gaps. Strengthen additional leadership muscle. Once you have your plan, be prepared to live by it and ask your coach and others to help hold you accountable.
Now that you have awareness, data, and a plan, it’s time to reframe with your stakeholders. This is how you start to change those stories about you that may be walking around. It will take courage and consistency, and how you approach your stakeholders is important.
Meet with each stakeholder individually:
- Tell them what you heard and what you learned about yourself. You will feel vulnerable, and your stakeholders will recognize that. That is okay, and it is what must happen in order to recover your brand.
- Thank them for providing feedback. Be sincere here. Remember, they handed you a gift.
- Let them know what you’re working on and why. Discuss your high-level action plan.
- Ask them if there is anything else you can do.
You are letting others know you are going to change, and you are asking them to watch for it, even if you don’t say that directly. You are looking to improve your brand, and your stakeholders can help you do that if you are authentic in your desire to get better.
Schedule Periodic Check-ins
You’ve set the stage, you have a plan. Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and tackle that plan. You must put in the work. It takes time. This could be a six to twelve-month process.
But it’s important that you don’t do the work in the dark.
Remember that your stakeholders gave you feedback. You thanked them and let them know that you’re working on your leadership. Periodically, you need to check back in with your stakeholders.
Like you, they are busy professionals themselves. They may not notice your work on yourself. Not because they aren’t interested in your progress, but simply because they have a lot of their own concerns.
You must stand in their line of sight and help them to focus for a moment on your growth. You’ll tell them, “I think I’m changing, and here’s why…”
You are reframing the picture they hold of you in their minds.
You’ll also want to ask them if they are seeing any change. If they are not, ask them if they have any other thoughts as to the work you should be doing. Take that information and determine how to work it into your plan.
This is an iterative process, and you’ll want to continue until your brand has recovered to your satisfaction, and maybe even outperforms any expectation you had!
The leadership brand recovery process takes intentionality, vulnerability, and hard work. But it works. I’ve seen it many succeed over and over with leaders at all levels.
Your leadership brand can be what you want it to be.