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Building Your Leadership Brand

There’s no one perfect way to be a leader, but there are identifiable practices that define a truly effective one.
Building Your Leadership Brand

Most people will experience moments when they regret something they said, did, or failed to do. It’s part of being human. But for a freshly minted leader, those human moments can accumulate quickly and do real damage if you’re not careful. This can happen for many reasons, including underestimating just how profound the transition is from individual contributor to leader.

You’re probably approaching the first encounters with your new team with a sense of anxious anticipation and armed with a mental checklist of the unique value you have always brought to your work. As your new team looks to you for the first time, they are understandably worried about how that value will make things harder for them.

The people who now report to you will form an early judgment about your leadership capabilities that will define your reputation in ways that may not serve you well, particularly when you’re also mastering the full scope of your new job. Consider the simple truth that consumers face: If their experience with a product is not good, they won’t use it again. And they’ll most likely complain about it to other people. The dark cloud spawned by poor word of mouth can dampen a product’s prospects in the marketplace for a long time. So, whether you’re 30 seconds into your leadership job or have been in place a while and could use a reputational do-over, you’ll need to develop and consistently operate within a broader framework of how you think about your new role. Here we introduce you to three attributes that will help you create a positive leadership brand—one that cultivates trust and truly reflects your authentic self.

What’s in a Leadership Brand?

While there’s no one perfect way to be a leader, there are clearly identifiable practices that set apart truly effective leaders from average or poor ones. Research has shown that successful leaders demonstrate three key attributes—we call them leadership differentiators—that help them gain confidence and skill in leading a group. Embrace them and you will be successful out of the gate.

They are:

  • Be authentic.
  • Bring out the best in people.
  • Be receptive to feedback.

Clearly, these attributes are commendable for everyone, whatever their life’s work. Good leaders eventually realize their true value—some earlier and some later—during their career. Research clearly shows that these differentiators can predict future success, as well. That’s important information for you on two other fronts. While as a leader you’ll be coaching others, you also might be in a position to help select future peers and team members. Look for these attributes in others. Furthermore, even if you are not a leader yet, these skills will help you make your mark as an individual contributor and distinguish yourself as a strong candidate for advancement. And people will want to work with you more. Which is a good thing!

Be Authentic

Being authentic means that your actions mirror what you believe and feel, and that there is no contradiction between what you do and what you say.

You demonstrate authenticity when you:

  • Do what’s right, even in difficult situations.
  • Treat people with respect.
  • Promote trust among others.
  • Keep promises and commitments.
  • Admit mistakes.
  • Give credit when it’s due.
  • Disclose by sharing your thoughts, feelings, and rationale, when appropriate.
  • Display confidence but avoid arrogance.

Conversely, leaders who are inauthentic can have a debilitating effect on the teams they lead. These leaders tend to:

  • Hoard information.
  • Pit team members against each other or play favorites.
  • Disregard team members who don’t agree with them.
  • Ignore tensions and workplace conflict.
  • Blame others for their missteps.
  • Take credit.
  • Radically change their behavior to sound more leaderly.
  • Pretend to know everything.

With these behaviors in mind, it should come as no surprise to learn that in our many focus groups with senior executives, the importance of authenticity in leaders received some of the most resounding affirmations—across cultures, industries, and professional sectors. Executives worry about how their leaders are perceived, and so should you. Why? Authenticity is fueled by integrity, which in turn fosters trust—the fundamental catalyst in the most-admired workplaces. Most-admired workplaces have happier, more engaged, productive, and creative employees. When people trust you, it’s not just good for your reputation—it’s good for business, too.

Bring Out the Best in People

We’ve found that the best leaders have the innate ability to make everyone around them better.

Management tomes and business magazines correctly tout our current era as an age of collaboration—an optimistic time where solutions are crowd-sourced, opportunities are designed, and far-flung teams work together creatively at all hours of the day from every corner of the globe. While it is true that new technologies enable new ways of working together, it’s also true that the type of leader who thrives in this environment—one who resists traditional command and control structure—has always existed. And it is precisely this type of person who will thrive as a leader today.

Don’t worry if you’re not a natural at this; you can learn. One key is to ask smart questions and listen to the answers. It takes win-win thinking to help others be the best they can be. Great leaders possess this outlook. They know that their own success relies on the success of the people they lead and that one of their chief responsibilities is to foster their team members' skills, abilities, interests, and efforts. It's never too early to establish this positive philosophy and put it into action.

To bring out the best in people:

  • Encourage your team to try new things.
  • Cultivate and optimize others’ talents and capabilities.
  • Take the time to find out what motivates your team and assign work in line with people’s skills and interests.
  • Compliment people on their efforts.
  • Give people input on things that affect them.
  • Trust in the strengths of others.
  • Allow them to safely learn through failure, so they can take appropriate risks.
  • Unite others toward common goals.

Be Receptive to Feedback

For this last differentiator, we’ll explore how team members and other workplace associates can reciprocate and bring out the best in you by giving you feedback.

Leadership research bears out what USA Olympic gymnastics coach Mary Lee Tracy recognizes as a distinguishing characteristic of elite athletes: "Athletes are no different than other people in that they will make mistakes. What is so important and what I look for in future elite athletes is how they respond to failure. It’s so important they don’t continue to fail, but fail forward."

One of the variables that over time has shown to predict leadership success is an individual’s “receptivity to feedback.” Those who generally seek and use feedback from others and view mistakes as learning opportunities tend to be more successful in leadership roles. The fail- forward concept should be adopted for all leaders. But it only works if you’re willing to seek and accept the feedback of people who are in a position to evaluate your work.

First, Ask . . .

We know from experience that what we’re asking you to do is harder than it sounds. Most leaders find seeking feedback to be pretty difficult. Nobody wants to show weakness, particularly in business. Part of it is personality based: Receptivity to feedback is learned early in life and can be difficult to develop as an adult if you don’t make an effort. But seeking growth is not showing weakness. Leaders who are never wrong typically suffer the ripple effects of low morale and high turnover (which is bad for business). And they keep making the same mistakes again and again, which can cause real problems for an organization.

But anyone can master the practice of seeking and using feedback. The first steps, of course, are up to you. To show your receptivity to feedback:

  • Ask for and use feedback about your leadership from multiple sources.
  • Accept and act on developmental feedback.
  • Acknowledge your shortcomings.
  • Display humility.
  • Hold yourself to high expectations.

Then, Widen the Circle

With feedback it’s not a “less is more” but a “more is more” opportunity. The more perspectives you gather, the more likely you are to get the true message people are sending.

Consider asking:

  • Your manager for perspective on how you’re leading the team, how you’re communicating back up to him, and how well you work with peers.
  • Your peers to provide perspectives on your interdepartmental collaborations and insights from customers.
  • Your direct reports, who can let you know if you’re communicating your expectations clearly and appropriately seeking their input in your decision making.
  • Your customers to share their perspectives on your and your team’s performance.

Finally, Receive with Gratitude

Saying that you’re open to receiving feedback is one thing. Actually welcoming it is another matter, especially if the feedback challenges you in unexpected ways. It can feel like very bad news. But you can train yourself to see feedback as the gift it truly is.

Leaders who are open to feedback begin by thanking the giver for sharing and then asking questions to gather the specifics. And these are the leaders who will succeed.

Don’t like feedback surprises? Try asking team members for feedback as a regular part of team or individual meetings. This signals that you’re trying to build an environment of trust and continuous improvement. And acting on feedback is even better; it demonstrates that you have room for improvement, which makes you more approachable and human.

Researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed the feedback-seeking behavior of 51,896 leaders over three years. They discovered that:

  • Leaders who seek more are viewed as stronger. Leaders who actively sought feedback and looked for opportunities to improve were viewed as 86 percent effective. They topped the list. Leaders who fell lowest on the survey in terms of openness to feedback were rated as only 15 percent effective.
  • Feedback-seeking behaviors decline with age. Most people seek more early in their career, but the tendency diminishes over time.
  • Senior leaders are less likely to ask for feedback. Supervisors will seek feedback for improvement 64 percent of the time, while senior leaders seek it only 43 percent of the time.

Consistent failure to seek feedback on your brand can have a negative impact on your career. In a study of 462 leaders in a Fortune 500 company, 77 leaders, average age of 50, were asked to leave their organizations, after an average tenure of 18 years. An analysis of 360 degree feedback data collected two years prior to their dismissal found a significant difference on a measurement of the extent to which leaders made a constructive effort to change based on feedback from others.

My Legacy, My Brand

Think about the legacy you want to build and how the differentiators might help you build that brand reputation. And, while business results are important, the only way to achieve them is through people.

This article is adapted from the recently published book Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015). It is available through bookstores and major online booksellers.

Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D. and Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.
Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., is CEO, and Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., senior vice president at DDI

Building Your Leadership Brand

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