Cultivating a Leadership Brand

Sharing a great article by Lee Jia Ping, Managing Partner of the Listening Tree.

There has been much said and published about branding and the importance of it for growing your bottom line. The message is slowly seeping into the consciousness of many corporations in SE Asia who now, more than ever, have been force to remove themselves from their comfort zone due to the economic meltdown. And so, many have jumped on the branding band wagon with great vigour, forming internal brand teams or appointing brand ambassadors and commissioning rebranding programmes.

Unfortunately, despite the hype and the lip service CEOs give to branding, more often than not, branding or rebranding is nothing more than a box that has been ticked of their to do list, a KPI that has been met in order to signal at best a superficial change within the organization. The enthusiasm invariable runs out of steam by the time the last signboard has been replaced or the 560th employee has undergone Brand Training. Pretty soon, branding will be relegated back to the marketing dept, whence it came or to the corporate programme graveyard along with so many other, well meaning initiatives. Then it will be business as usual albeit under a new logo and interior colour scheme.

The most heartening are corporations who understand that brand success relies heavily on an inside out rather than outside in approach coupled with a belief that drives a brand-centric way of operating, long after the ink on the new logo has dried. But these corporations are what some would call enlightened and there are few and far between. Why else, has Malaysia produced so few great brands of international standing.

The one thing that enlightened corporations or companies have in common is an enlightened leader, a visionary who truly has a vested interest in not just the company but the people within. They are the ones who know that the hard work truly starts after the new logo has been approved. There are some who go so far as forsaking a logo change, opting instead to reexamine how systems, processes and people can be improved and/or developed to best serve the customer as well as turn in a tidy profit.

To thrive, leadership brands, truly understand and believe that people are their biggest assets. They often challenge themselves to go beyond industry clichés and norms pertaining to employees and thus tailor or develop strategies accordingly. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins asserts that good to great leaders begin by getting the right people on board the bus before even setting the vision and the mission. The right people drive the right culture (a culture of discipline) which combined with the ethics of entrepreneurship create the magic of great performance.

In their book Leadership Brand, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood states: “We believe that leaders matter, but leadership matters more. We have all experienced a gifted leader who engaged all of us — our hearts, minds, and feet. ..But leadership exists when an organization produces more than one to two individual leaders. Leadership matters more because it is tied not to a person but to the process of building leaders.”

Colleen Barrett, ex-CEO of Southwest Airlines says that her people are the most important customers. She believed that if she looks after her people, she can rest assure that her people will in turn look after Southwest external customers. As a result, her management strategy involved spending 85% of her time on her employees and the brand has grown consistently over the years. This has had far reaching effects on customer service as Southwest employees are renowned for going the extra mile. Take the story of a groom-to-be involved in a car accident en route to the airport to fly to his wedding rehearsal. He makes it to the check-in counter with 10 mins to spare, bloodied and stressed, explains loudly to the check-in attendant and for all the passengers his predicament. Seeing this, the check-in attendant calls her security colleague over, who picks up the luggage, starts running towards the gate and motions the groom-to-be to follow. They sprint down the corridor and make it into the plane with 2 mins to spare and hears an announcement onboard saying “Ladies and gentlemen, the groom has made it onboard” followed by huge applause. This is just an example of a great Leadership Brand in action. Build your people and they will build your business.

In Disney’s Creating Magic, Lee Cockerell, former EVP of Operations, at Walt Disney World Resort wrote that Disney has a culture of treating their people like they would their customers. As a result, they were able to survive Hurricane Katrina without closing down. After they had successfully evacuated theme park, the ensured that everything was battened down and secured. When the hurricane passed, they worked overtime to ensure that the resort was ready for business the next day. In the book there is a story of a satisfied customer who wrote “I was looking for magic in all the wrong places, your staff is your magic”.

Magic is really what you will create when you start consistently building a leadership brand and there is no more urgent a time than now to start relooking at our old ways and perhaps start doing business differently. Let us use this time of chaos to reinvent ourselves to start clearing out the old corporate baggage that has kept us from rising in the world, so that when the dust settles, we emerge strengthened, revitalised and even possibly extraordinary. Now that would be magic.

From Juarez – Interestingly enough, I  just had lunch with Jia Ping and were stranded in the restaurant when it rained. The staff lent us umbrellas and walked us across the street to pick up the umbrellas. Magic in motion!

This article was originally published on Lee Jia Ping’s blog.

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