Key Elements to CEO Brand Building

Posted on June 3, 2019

By Joanna Kulesa

I’m not sure exactly when “CEO brand” became a thing. Certainly, a number of pioneering CEOs have gained celebrity status through the years — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, et al. But it used to be that most CEOs were simply the boss, their performance evaluated by traditional measures like quality of vision, strategic execution and, of course, financial results.

Then the world changed. Power shifted from brands to buyers as digitization gave them more information, resources, and choices than ever before. Social media blew up into a phenomenon where reputations are made or broken in an instant. Company culture took on unprecedented importance as the competition to hire and retain invaluable skills intensified.

These trends rearranged the calculus of how CEOs communicate with the world, and no top leader can afford to ignore them. Which is why so many now view personal brand building as a key strategic imperative that can help advance the company’s business goals.

In a survey of 402 CEOs from 11 countries by leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder, 79 percent agreed with the statement, “As CEO, I need the capacity to transform myself as well as my organization.” Said the study: “Today’s leaders see a link between self-transformation and organizational transformation — and believe that both are required for an executive to find success in the top role.”

But getting there is easier said than done. As the report put it, so many CEOs are focused on “doing” rather than “being” that it can be hard to put themselves in the headspace of curiosity, learning, and adaptability that CEO brand-building demands. Yet “new conditions and opportunities demand that they leave their comfort zone,” the study said.

This is why we take special pride in working with our CEO clients to help build their personal brand platforms. We know that CEOs aren’t in it just for the money or to get pats on the back from their boards (though those are nice) but to make a mark on the world — by disrupting markets and solving customer problems and realizing their own visions about what makes a great company.

We’ve noticed that the CEOs who excel at brand building tend to share four common attributes:

1. They’re engaged and committed. CEO brand building isn’t something that can be delegated to the CMO or the PR team; chances of success improve dramatically if the CEO takes strong, personal interest. That means being up for devoting time and energy to the effort.

2. They’re authentic. In all their interactions with the public, whether in a tweet or an interview or a byline article in a major publication, these leaders consistently project dead-on honesty. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson nailed this dynamic in a recent Q&A when he said, “I figured out that authenticity is the fastest way to create human connection and to lead people. That means having the courage to show vulnerability, show empathy and compassion.”

3. They’re curious. Michael Dell was once asked to name one quality that CEOs need most to succeed in turbulent times. His reply: “I would place my bet on curiosity.” CEOs with attractive brands don’t presume to have all the answers – they seem focused on being interested as much as interesting.

4. They’re not afraid to take a stand. CEOs increasingly understand that real values and purpose can be a great part of their brand and help them stand out in a noisy world. For example, an article by one of our CEO clients about his commitment to having dinner with his family every night went viral and was shared thousands of times. As an Accenture report said, “Companies looking to build their competitive agility need to find new ways to stand apart. Purpose provides the differentiation that many seek.”

By keeping these elements in mind, CEOs can build personal brands that help their companies shine in this frenetic new world of ours. We’re lucky to work with so many who are up for the challenge.