What to Do When An Executive’s Brand Shines Too Bright

red sea star in the fishing net

Avoiding the Dangers of a Superstar Brand

Personal branding is a popular topic lately, with everyone from job seekers to C-Suite executives working on building better personal brands. Standing out from the crowd is important, but is it possible for executive brands to be too good?

Charismatic leaders can catapult an unknown corporate brand to the front page, winning attention over other, potentially stronger competitors. These individuals possess a personal brand that holds magnetic power, attracting press coverage, investors, employees and customers. Some, like Steve Jobs (Apple), Richard Branson (Virgin) and Sara Blakely (Spanx) become famous in their own right.

Many leaders yearn for this kind of attention, while others eschew it. Even those who shun the limelight may find themselves in the spotlight due to stunning innovations or breakthrough products. Sometimes, even quiet leaders and irascible executives develop strong brands, with a far-reaching reputation that may be good – or not.

Whatever the reasons, when corporate leaderships take center stage, the potential exists for an executive brand for overshadow the corporate brand. Jack Welch and GE. Zuckerberg and Facebook. Ellison and Oracle.

The balance between the executive persona and corporate brand is delicate. When one or the other shifts in a positive or negative direction, the company or its leader can get caught in the fray. Poor personal decisions can tarnish brand equity, eroding shareholder value. Bad business performance can unhinge an executive who suddenly finds himself on the street.

In the quest to create an executive brand, many corporate leaders overlook the flip side of the equation. Organizations need to be in tune with this ongoing dance, especially in times of transition. If your company is going public or you’ve built a business from scratch and are contemplating your exit strategy, there will certainly be an implication for your brand.

Brand transitions can happen suddenly or come as the result of a planned evolution in your business. As you can see from the list below, there are a host of reasons your well-know executive may leave, creating a gap in your brand.

  • Sudden illness or death of a key executive
  • A founder forced out by the board
  • Leadership transition for strategic reasons
  • New management as a result of a merger
  • Executives stepping down for personal reasons
  • Ethical issues or illegal activity
  • Early or Planned Retirement
  • Handoff in a family business
  • Selling a company

With the rise of social media in recent years, even mid-level employees can get caught in the brand gap. A popular online presence may lead a key employee to strike out on their own endeavors, taking all their social equity with them. (This also applies to product gurus, sales starts and marketing mavens.) If your organization has standouts within it, and most do, what will you do when the time inevitably comes to part ways?

Start preparing when you recognize an issue – or even the potential for a problem. As you’re thinking about succession planning, anticipate a transfer of brand value as well. Think of ways your business can proactively work with up-and-coming leaders to polish their personal brands before they take a seat at the executive table. Look at your stars and explore opportunities to distinguish between the person and the position.

The ideal time to address this issue is when you have the luxury of lead time  When an owner is hoping to exit in 3 to 5 years or your CEO starts thinking of retirement, begin ramping up your transition activities for the executive brand as well.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to execute a person-to-person transfer. It might simply be a shift in focus from the corporate leader to the organization itself with a change in messaging language that highlights the business or its offerings more than the executive. Subtle changes in communications such as these are a good first step in fostering the corporate brand equity that your company needs.

If your organization is facing a critical transition and you need assistance navigating the brand shift, Joellyn Ferguson can help. Give her a call at 678.823.8228.

Image by Vjeran Lisjak.

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