For Professionals: Branding (3)
Building and Sustaining the Credibility to Lead
By Chris Amisano
Building credibility is one of the hardest and most continuous tasks a leader faces. Every action you take can make or break your credibility. Why is building credibility so difficult? It could be that you find yourself in a new leadership position or in a new organization. Plus, the organizational environment changes constantly, and you must find ways to reinvent yourself as a leader in order to keep teams interested and moving toward their goals. So, what are the competencies and actions that can help build and maintain leadership credibility?
One of the first competencies is the combination of execution, planning, and consistency. Obviously, what leaders do must be well planned. Projects, strategies, interactions with teams, and “obstacle moving” must be logical, methodical, and with the organization’s overall mission and strategy in mind. But if planning is the least exceptional action, a leader could be leaving his or her team high and dry — and creating big problems for credibility. The execution of any plan must be carried out with drill-sergeant precision, or you run the risk of losing the team’s commitment — and their ability to trust you. But the most important part about execution is that a leader must be consistent every time. With this consistency, you can build credibility and create leadership that is able to sustain itself in the long term.
With consistency in mind, the way you make decisions is also a credibility builder, and a leader should do this using his or her values. First, you have to determine your core values, knowing that honesty, integrity, and straightforwardness must be at the top of the list. But it goes further than simply knowing core values; you must act on them every time you make decisions. Your teams will be watching and will begin to judge their own decision-making skills by the values you live. This leadership by example shows not only what you stand for, but it shows your teams also the way to move forward and become leaders in their own right.
Building credibility is difficult because of the concept that everyone is watching. Look at our political and social leaders — one slip-up, and, suddenly, all of the world’s problems are their fault. With that kind of responsibility, leaders not only have to make value-based decisions consistently, but they also have to make sure that they deliver on every promise, every time. It’s easy to say that you will do something or move an obstacle or change a process — but it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into beforehand. When you examine promises this way, the follow-through is easier — and that’s a mountain-sized credibility builder.
As you move teams forward with consistency, execution, and follow-through, it’s important to remember why you’re a leader in the first place. You lead to help the organization and its associates achieve their goals and missions. From this perspective, another way to build credibility is to understand the organization’s mission and do everything you can to help people achieve it. It’s not about telling the organization what you can do for it — you must show the organization’s teams how all of you can achieve goals together through strategy, teamwork, values, and execution. In this same way, leaders should be learners at all stages of the game. Take the time to learn more about the organization every day, more about what makes it “tick,” what makes it move forward, and what obstacles could keep it from growing. When you commit to this type of learning, you become a student of credibility. If an obstacle blocks the path, you will have the know-how and the tools to move it out of the way. You will be able to act consistently in every action, every day, and keep the team moving forward to the next goal.
Finally, building credibility requires you to remember that you can’t do it alone. There’s no point in building a team if you’re going to keep them in the background. The leader’s job is to build a team and help them keep up. When you let your teams know that they are moving with you, you can solidify your credibility and move the organization closer to achieving its goals.
Define Your Personal Leadership Brand in Five Steps
You probably already have a personal leadership brand. But do you have the right one?
The question is not trivial. A leadership brand conveys your identity and distinctiveness as a leader. It communicates the value you offer. If you have the wrong leadership brand for the position you have, or the position you want, then your work is not having the impact it could. A strong personal leadership brand allows all that's powerful and effective about your leadership to become known to your colleagues, enabling you to generate maximum value.
What's more, choosing a leadership brand can help give you focus. When you clearly identify what you want to be known for, it is easier to let go of the tasks and projects that do not let you deliver on that brand. Instead, you can concentrate on the activities that do.
So how do you build a leadership brand? My co-author Dave Ulrich and I came up with these five steps.
1. What results do you want to achieve in the next year?
The first thing you should do is ask yourself, "In the next 12 months, what are the major results I want to deliver at work?" Take into account the interests of these four groups:
• The organization
Dave and I once worked with a very talented and hardworking executive we'll call Tricia. Her successful performance in several varied roles at her organization — she'd been an auditor, a process engineer and a customer-service manager — earned her a promotion into a general manager position, charging her with running one of the company's largest businesses. To succeed at her first large-scale leadership position and meet the complex set of expectations she would encounter in it, she knew she needed to become more deliberate about the way she led others. In short, she knew she needed a new leadership brand, and asked us for help in forging it.
We advised Tricia to begin by focusing on the expectations of those she was working to serve, rather than on what she identified as her personal strengths. Leadership brand is outward focused; it is about delivering results. While identifying innate strengths is an important part of defining your leadership brand, the starting point is clarifying what is expected of you.
2. What do you wish to be known for?
Tricia knew she was seen as technically proficient and hardworking, but somewhat aloof. These traits, she realized, added up to a leadership brand that would not take her very far in her new role. With that in mind, Tricia picked six descriptors that balanced the qualities that came naturally to her with those that would be critical in her new position. She then tested her choices by sharing them with her boss, her peers, and some of her most trusted subordinates. She simply asked them, "Are these the traits that someone in this general manager role should exhibit?" Their responses helped her refine her list to ultimately include the following traits:
3. Define your identity
The next step is to combine these six words into three two-word phrases that reflect your desired identity. This exercise allows you to build a deeper, more complex description: not only what you want to be known for, but how you will probably have to act to get there. For example, calmly driven differs from tirelessly driven. Experimenting with the many combinations that you can make from your six chosen words helps you crystallize your personal leadership brand.
Tricia combined the six descriptors into the following three phrases:
• Independently innovative
• Deliberately collaborative
• Strategically results-oriented
She tested this with several colleagues, neatly pulled together what came easily to Tricia ("independently innovative" and "strategically results-oriented") with what she could accomplish through disciplined effort ("deliberately collaborative"). Tricia was satisfied that it aptly described both the kind of leader she was and the kind of leader she was becoming.
4. Construct your leadership brand statement, then test it.
In this step, you pull everything together in a leadership brand statement that makes a "so that" connection between what you want to be known for (Steps 2 and 3) and your desired results (Step 1). Fill in the blanks: "I want to be known for being ______________ so that I can deliver __________."
Tricia's leadership brand statement read: "I want to be known for being independently innovative, deliberately collaborative and strategically results-oriented so that I can deliver superior financial outcomes for my business."
With your leadership brand statement drafted, ask the following three questions to see if it needs to be refined:
• Is this the brand identity that best represents who I am and what I can do?
• Is this brand identity something that creates value in the eyes of my organization and key stakeholders?
• What risks am I taking by exhibiting this brand? Can I live this brand?
After going through this exercise, Tricia was satisfied that she had crafted a personal leadership brand that was appropriate for her new role and within her power to live and make real.
5. Make your brand identity real
Espoused-but-unlived brands create cynicism because they promise what they do not deliver. To ensure that the leadership brand you advertise is embodied in your day-to-day work, check in with those around you. Do they see you as you wish to be seen? If you say you are flexible and approachable, do others find you so?
After Tricia defined her personal leadership brand, she shared it with others. She let people know that she was evolving as a leader and invited their feedback, especially on her efforts at working collaboratively.
The exercise of forging a leadership brand and the day-to-day discipline of making it real, Tricia said, helped her stay focused on the most important challenges of her new role.
To be sure, your leadership brand isn't static; it should evolve in response to the different expectations you face at different times in your career. In our work, we have seen that leaders with the self-awareness and drive to evolve their leadership brands are more likely to be successful over the long term — and to enjoy the journey more.
Norm Smallwood is co-founder of The RBL Group, a strategic HR and leadership systems advisory firm. He is author, with Dave Ulrich and Kate Sweetman, of the 2009 Harvard Business Press title, The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead and with Dave Ulrich on the 2007 title, Leadership Brand: Developing Customer-Focused Leaders to Drive Performance and Build Lasting (Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
Seeing Yourself as Others See You
By Linda Hill and Kent Lineback
Becoming a great boss required courage—in particular, the courage to find out how others see you. Almost certainly, others' perceptions of you will differ in important and perhaps disconcerting ways from your self-perceptions. This is an important topic. It's not about being liked or popular. It's about your ability to exert influence, which is your major task as a manager. If you don't know how your words and actions are perceived and understood, if you don't know if others trust you (and if they don't, why not), if you don't know what others want and expect from you, how can you exert the influence you want?
The question is, how do you find out? Simply asking is unlikely to produce a true or complete answer. As the boss, you will often have trouble finding out the truth about anything, especially when it's negative or problematic. Even if you're trusted, people are still aware you hold the keys to promotions, pay, and choice assignments. And if you're not trusted, why would anyone tell you the truth?
Though there are no simple solutions, we can offer some guidelines.
You're more likely to hear what people think and feel, if you've established real, ongoing human connections with them. Think of your interactions with those around you — your people, your colleagues, even your boss and others above you. Is there an easy give-and-take between you? Are you able to carry on a real conversation about a variety of topics, business and personal? Can you disagree and respectfully discuss your differences? Without such connections, which require time to establish, little else you do is likely to uncover others' thoughts and feelings, especially about you as a boss.
You're more likely to hear people's real thoughts and feelings once you've established a history of reacting calmly and constructively to comments of all kinds, even when they're personal and not positive. You needn't accept everything you hear. But when you disagree, do you seek clarification, pose thoughtful questions, and ask for examples? Or do you respond angrily and deny defensively what you're hearing? If you want to know what people think, you cannot deny the reality of their perceptions, even when you disagree. Only as people test your tolerance will you slowly build a reputation for a willingness to hear and accept candid comments.
Seek out people's perceptions and perspectives in the context of a specific task, project, or program. Asking broad, general questions can feel threatening to those you're asking, particularly if they work for you. So, develop a practice of "checking in" with people at the beginning and end of a piece of work (and in the middle if it's a lengthy project). At the start, ask what people hope and expect to get from you, the boss, through the course of the work. At the end, ask if people got what they needed. Use the specific piece of work as a setting for a candid discussion of what worked and what didn't, where you might have done less or more, and what you should do differently next time. That discussion can sometimes serve as a springboard to a more general discussion about you as a manager and what people need from you.
This approach can work even for everyday tasks. Every time you make an assignment or request, no matter how small, ask if what you want is clear. And then ask what the person needs from you, if anything, to perform that task. The answer will often be, "Nothing." But when the person does make a request, agree on what you will do, do it, and then check back to see if everything, including your role, worked out as hoped.
Approaching every task, large or small, this way may or may not produce direct game-changing insights for you, but it will create relationships in which people know you're open to their thoughts and insights.
Build a developmental network of people who will give you candid feedback. These should obviously be people you trust and with whom you have strong, ongoing relationships. These people can give you reactions to what they see and hear from you and can communicate to you what they hear about you from others in the organization. They are most likely to be peers and colleagues and may include an older and more senior mentor. But personal networks don't usually include those who work for you because including them can complicate your relationship and color your judgment in making hard decisions that involve them.
Finally, if she's willing, your boss can also be a valuable source of feedback based on her own experience with you, and she can pass on what she hears about you from others. It requires a boss who's willing to be a strong coach and developer and not just the judge who evaluates your performance. Such a relationship, if you can encourage and create it, offers clear advantages. Your boss has access to organizational information and commentary not available — but useful — to you and so can offer a broader perspective on how you're perceived. She's also likely to speak candidly with you. It's certainly worth testing whether your boss is willing to play this role.
All these approaches require time and ongoing effort. Getting the truth about how you're perceived and whether you're trusted doesn't only require the right questions. It requires the right relationships.
Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government. They are the coauthors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (HBR Press, 2011).