#466  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 5          May 2000

Leadership Brand
by Dave Ulrich, Ph.D., Norm Smallwood, Jack Zenger, Ph.D.

Dr. Ulrich is a professor at the School of Business, University of Michigan. Mr. Smallwood is CEO of Results-Based Leadership (www.rbl.net/) and Dr. Zenger is President of Provant, Inc. (www.provant.com/). They are authors of Results Based Leadership (Harvard Business Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999).

A few years ago one of us was on an extended bicycle trip with a group of boy scouts.  Each day we rode into a new city and had a choice for lunch:  McDonalds (or Burger King) or a no-name local restaurant.  Each day, the riders chose the "known" commodity over the unknown.  Brands make a difference in consumer behavior.  We prefer and even pay more for a shirt with a Harley logo, a room in a Marriott hotel, a family vacation at Disney, and Nike tennis shoes.  In these and other cases, firms have invested heavily in creating their brand, the identity and image they communicate to those who buy their products.

Internal Brand

Recently, thinking about brand has shifted from how external customers perceive either the product or firm to how firms create internal brand identity.  When a firm's internal brand, the culture and experience of employees, reflects the external brand that attracts consumers, the brand becomes even more valuable.  Harley employees want to work in an environment that encourages the quality that Harley riders pay for.  Marriott employees who receive good service from the firm (e.g., opportunities for training and growth, equitable compensation, and fair treatment) will in turn render good service to customers.  Disney's clean parks which attract guests are also reflected in the clean cut (no facial hair for men or excessive make up for women) hiring standards they have for employees.  Nike's ability to innovate products for customers becomes sustained through employees’ commitment to find innovative ways to do their work.  When the external brand consumers prefer reflects the internal culture experienced by employees, brand becomes a major source of competitive advantage.

Thinking about a firm's brand as its culture and set of management practices, however, does not fully explain the power of brand.  The brand should also be imbued in each leader throughout the firm; then they communicate that brand to employees, who then sustain it with customers.  Leadership brand lies at the heart of a firm's identity.  Leadership branding occurs when many leaders exhibit distinct leadership practices over a number of years.  The organization creates leaders who are branded, or distinct from leaders in other firms. 

When we run leadership workshops, we often start with the open-ended question, "In the future to be successful at this firm, a leader must..."  The responses are consistent with current thinking about how to be better leaders:  set a vision, have energy, energize others, mobilize commitment, manage teams, coach, have integrity, think globally, etc.  After we generate this list of what we call attributes of leadership, we pose the question, "Who is surprised by this list?"  No one is.  The list makes sense and can be turned into leader behaviors which may then be assessed through some form of feedback and woven into a development experience to be and build better leaders.  But, then we ask "What if we did this exercise in 20 companies?”  or “Compare your list of attributes with the competency models of other companies?  Would they differ?"  And, the answer we inevitably get is "No, they are much the same."  Many of the current efforts to be or build better leaders have led to generic, models of leadership. These models fall short because they are not linked to results, not tied to the future, and not employed as well as they could be.

For leadership to be a brand, leaders must exhibit more than generic competencies.  Generic brands don’t receive a premium price, they don’t attract customers, and they don’t commit employees.  Likewise, generic leaders who demonstrate universal competence may not deliver the results they are expected to deliver.   Turning generic into branded leadership is both simple and complex. 

At a simple level, branded leadership requires a new definition of leadership:  attributes + results.  Adding the "+ results" changes the focus from generic leaders with common and desired behaviors to branded leaders with clear results.  Our redefining leadership as the outcome of both attributes and results explains some of the causes of ineffective leadership and the challenges faced by effective leaders.  Leaders who do either attributes or results, will not have sustained success.  President Carter left office with poor results --  an economy in high unemployment and inflation and a nation in disrespect with the hostages in Iran.  Even with his high moral standards and character which deserve our respect and admiration and post-Presidential awards, his overall leadership effectiveness was moderate because he demonstrated attributes without results.  His leadership legacy will be forever marred by the lack of definitive results.

President Clinton, on the other hand, leaves office with the economy at an all-time high, with personal wealth higher than ever before, and with the nation respected and at peace globally.  But, he also leaves office with a less-than-positive overall leadership effectiveness because his personal character limits his ability to fulfill his entire vision.  In his 1999 state of the union address, President Clinton proposed a number of innovative, activist  government initiatives that would require political goodwill to attain.  It’s no surprise that in his last 18 months in office, none of these initiatives will become law and he will do more global travel than any President in the history of the United States.  His lack of personal character and attributes cost him the ability to build widespread commitment to an agenda for change that might have marked his last two years in office.  Like Carter, but for different reasons, his leadership legacy will be sullied.

Leaders need both attributes and results to be effective.  Leaders with attributes may win popularity contests, but not deliver value to employees, customers, or shareholders.   Leaders with results but no attributes may have short-term successes, but lack the support necessary to lead in difficult or changing circumstances. 

Leaders who demonstrate both attributes and results become what we call branded leaders.  Branded leaders possess appropriate attributes.  They have a point of view about the future of their unit, build teams, manage change, and have personal integrity.  But they are also able to turn attributes into specific results required for their business to succeed by answering the "so that" query for each attribute they demonstrate.  Focusing on results requires understanding the unique competitive requirements of a firm.  Firms win with strategies that differentiate them to customers; results should reflect these differences.  For example, leaders at Harley have a vision so that customer satisfaction is high enough to gain a sizable share of their target customer entertainment dollar.  Leaders at Marriott have a vision so that they attract and retain committed employees who will offer the best service in the lodging industry.  Leaders at Disney have a vision so that guests return home from the Disney theme park experience with positive memories and stories for their friends.  Each "vision" becomes branded when it is coupled with a "so that" query which makes it specific to the unique requirements of the business.  Each of these business' had unique strategies to win, which then lead to specific results.  These results then reflect leadership styles within a company, e.g. Marriott's civil style towards employees also influences their customer service.

Branded leadership is simple in that it requires leaders to both possess attributes and deliver results.  Branded leadership is more complex when each individual leader makes a commitment to both attributes and results. 

Branded leaders must be clear about the results required for a specific work unit.  They must understand the strategy for the unit:  Where will this unit focus attention and allocate resources to win in the market?  Will the unit pursue a customer, product, or cost strategy?  With the strategy in mind, branded leaders may then clarify results in four areas.  [1] Employee results deal with competencies and commitment expected from employees (what employee skills will be required; what levels of productivity and commitment from talented employees will we need).  [2] Organization results deal with certain capabilities (cycle time for new product innovation, ability to learn and share ideas, or ability to hold people accountable).  [3] Customer results focus on identifying the most critical customers, meeting their needs, and finding ways to build intimacy with those customers to result in a higher share of customer value.  [4] Financial results imply that leaders must meet revenue growth and cost-reduction goals, while ultimately delivering shareholder value.

Microsoft and Novell

One way to derive the essence of leadership brand is to compare the desired results of two successful companies in the same industry and then compare their leadership brands.  One would hypothesize that the brands could be very different while both driving successful business results.  We’ll compare Microsoft and Novell.  Bill Gates symbolizes Microsoft leadership brand and acts as the brand manager.  Microsoft has clear desired results -- world domination with no competitors.  Microsoft has also received a considerable amount of press about the attributes they more covet -- ambitious, hard driving, and especially intelligent leaders.  The integration of results and attributes provides a relatively clear picture of what Microsoft leadership brand is probably like:  competitive, challenging, cutting edge, and showing no mercy to competitors.

Novell leadership brand seems completely different.  Novell's desired business results revolve around the supremacy of their network architecture.  To succeed, they must collaborate with, not beat, their competitors.  Given the desired results at Novell, the kind of attributes they might foster would be around industry knowledge, interpersonal skills, ability to integrate product concepts, trustworthiness, and so on.  The integration of these desired results with these attributes provides a picture of leadership brand at Novell:  collaborative, knowledge-seeking, integrative, and looking for new opportunities.  Without a clear understanding of desired results, it's virtually impossible to describe whether or not a leadership brand is useful or successful.

Identifying Leadership Brand

This method for identifying leadership brand also works for companies that have little or no leadership brand.  We have worked with a capital-intensive company for many years in the forest products industry.  They are constantly shuffling their desired results.  Sometimes they want the lowest costs in the industry, other times they want to differentiate through quality of service initiatives. Overall, they obtain mediocre results with little competitive advantage and less organization capability.  They build leadership attributes by generally investing in across-the-board leadership development programs.  Integrating muddled, but desired, results with generic leadership training drives negative leadership brand.  Analysts reward this business with a low price/earnings multiple and continually worry about the ability of this company to sustain results in the future.

To be a branded leader, one must turn a business strategy into specific employee, organization, customer, and investor results.  By defining, measuring, and tracking these results, a dashboard for successful leadership may be created.   This dashboard enables each leader to know the results he must deliver and to monitor progress against those results.  Next, the leader must identify the attributes required to consistently deliver these results.  For example, for Harley leaders to gain a high share of entertainment dollars from their target customers, these leaders must understand customer expectations of quality and service.  For Disney leaders to attract and motivate the best employees, these leaders implement hiring standards that ensure that only the right employees come into the Disney work force.

A leader who knows both the results expected, and the attributes required, to achieve those results will develop a unique brand for his firm.  This leader will distinguish herself both to employees, supervisors, and ultimately customers.  These leaders make a difference not just because of what they say or who they are, but what they deliver. 

When an organization defines and invests in its leadership brand, leaders at all levels of the firm reflect not only the values of the firm, but the results that customers value.  So, the local McDonald's manager in Traverse City Michigan embodies the McDonald's leadership brand that sends a clarion signal about what is important to all employees in that store.  His employees know what is expected of them both in terms of results they must deliver to customers (product consistency through following standards and quick, courteous service) but in how they must act in doing so (cleanliness of restaurant and friendliness of employees).  Ultimately, this leadership brand induces 10 bike riders to choose McDonalds over the no-name, unbranded restaurant.  When this linkage of leadership brand goes from the top of the organization to the first line supervisor and ultimately to the customer, leadership is more than rhetoric or behaviors; it is a durable and sustainable competitive advantage.

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