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Posted by on May 29, 2010

Women Leaders: What’s Your Brand?

“Whatever job you are asked to do, at whatever level, do it well because your reputation is your resume.”

This statement by Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to hold that post, says a lot about perception and performance. This connection is likely to be made no matter what gender you are. But is stellar performance enough when it comes to establishing a leadership brand that adds conceptual context to your tangible performance record? If not, is the process of perception-building any different for women in leadership roles than it is for men?

I think it is, and the recent laser-like focus on Elena Kagan, President Obama’s pending nominee for the Supreme Court, bears this out. Here’s an example.

Several of the news items about Ms. Kagan have focused on her personal appearance (especially her wardrobe), the fact that she has never married, and the primarily academic career she has had outside of the courtroom, including her role as the Dean at Harvard Law School. Taken to the extreme, the not-so-subtle undertone of these articles also implies that Ms. Kagan is somehow less qualified than she should be for the role of Supreme Court Justice. This may or may not be true; I don’t know her and can’t say that I’m an expert at assessing her critical thinking or decision-making skills from afar. What I have noticed, however, is that an article about the color of Justice Roberts’ tie, or the state of Justice Breyer’s marriage, is unlikely to make it to mainstream media coverage about their rulings.

There are likely to be many reasons for this disappointing state of affairs, starting with the fact that media coverage today is no longer the journalistic endeavor that it once was. I also submit that although we have come a long way, women leaders still need to work harder than men do to establish the brand that sends the message they want others to get about their professional capabilities. While you may not be able to change the norms in the environment you lead in, here are some tips that I have used and that I have offered to multiple women I’ve coached as they sought to establish their own leadership brand:

  • What comes to mind when you think about the 3-5 essential professional characteristics that you want others to notice and remember about you? Write them down, and keep it short so you can remember them easily. For example: articulate…prepared…decisive.
  • Think about the key meetings and other activities that comprise your workday. When you are in those situations, what do you need to start doing, or perhaps stop doing, to convey that you are articulate, prepared and decisive? Write this down as well, and commit to practicing over the course of a few weeks.
  • Enlist the aid of a trusted colleague or two so you can receive regular feedback. This is a piece of the puzzle that some of my coaching clients have found almost as valuable as the reflective time out to consider their brand more intentionally. One client has shared that by asking a colleague to help her process her behavior in key meetings, she has substantially increased her self-awareness of times that she may be detracting from her intended brand.  She has also received a compliment from her senior leadership team about the way she is now being perceived in meetings with them.

Thanks to women like former Secretary of State Albright, there are many examples of strong leadership brands that we can all draw from today. What’s yours? How have you built it and conveyed it successfully to others? I’d love to hear from you.

4 Comments

  1. This article is very thought provoking and presents a truthful analysis. We still have a long way to go, but to get there we must be self aware and reflective in our actions. Very well written!
    Thanks for sharing your insights and coaching skills. :)

    • Linda, thank you very much for your comment. So often we hear the phrase “Good work speaks for itself.” Not always! Thanks for affirming that intentional reflection and messaging can take us that much closer to the perception and brand we seek to build.

  2. Great topic, Robin! As an expert in Personal Brand and Leadership Brand management, I can bring a perspective on leadership Brand for women. In addition to Robin’s insighful article, we offer our perspectives:

    Over the last 3 years, we’ve reviewed thousands of Brand surveys of women leaders (large corp and federal). Some trends for women emerge, though leadership Brand management is highly specific to the “marketplace” in which you lead. We are coaching all women leaders to pay attention to a few things:

    1. Be proactive and conversational in talking about your work; if you’re not talking about your best work, maybe nobody is! Organizations are busy: keep folks focused on your efforts, ideas, breakthroughs and results. Networking can help with this.

    2. Craft and articulate your point-of-view and vision about the business/industry. Women are (somehow) perceived over time as being less strategic and less visionary than men. See recent research about this on http://www.insead.com, author Herminia Ibarra

    3. Use your interpersonals to create great business outcomes.Be intentional in relationships to develop a Brand as being inclusive, collaborative and open. Through those efforts, you’ll build a Brand that allows you to attracts top talent, build trust quickly and influences widely.

    At Stone Lake, we say “Strong Brands are managed outcomes.” Robin is right: manage yours!!

    • Terri, I love your ideas! Thank you for sharing them. I especially like the way you (at Stone Lake) are coaching women to build a brand that highlights some of the natural talents that research shows we bring around inclusion and collaboration. I hope we can talk more about the outcomes you’re helping women to achieve. Thanks again!

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