A leader’s brand is how others see — and what they say — about him or her (often when the leader is not around). Ever since Tom Peters introduced the concept in a famous late-’90s article in Fast Company, leaders have worked on building their brands from scratch. They have also attempted to reinvent their personal brands. What is often less understood, however, is how leaders can recover their brands if they have been weakened or damaged.
The following case study is based on an executive with whom the authors worked. The executive’s name has been changed to maintain privacy:
Judy, the young CFO at a large hospital in the upper Midwest, had risen through the ranks and was now viewed as a rock star within the hospital’s parent health system. Her boss, the hospital CEO, recognized her potential and constantly talked her up to system executives. “She has a brilliant mind,” he repeated. “She’s such a strategic thinker.” Before long, Judy was shortlisted for the system CFO position. It appeared that it was only a matter of time before she got the position.
But then things changed. Her supportive CEO suddenly left the organization, and a new CEO came in with his own team. Overnight, and for no obvious reason, Judy’s reputation regressed. The new executive team formed misperceptions about her such as “she doesn’t think big” and “she is only focused on her own facility.” Through no fault of her own, Judy’s brand had become damaged.
Judy sought executive coaching help, which revealed that her situation was a classic case of “leadership brand recovery.” Judy needed to quickly change the new perceptions others had of her.
Though every leader’s situation is different, the following three-step approach for brand recovery can be a helpful framework.
Step 1: Recognize That There Is a Problem
The first step for brand recovery is for the leader to become aware that there is a problem, much like Judy did. Based on 360-degree feedback and interviews, leadership coaches collect data that clearly demonstrate others’ perceptions about the leader. The summary result can be relayed to the executive in numerous ways. The following is one method: “There is a negative story circulating about you in the organization, and that story is growing legs and walking around the hallways.” This approach to relaying the news emphasizes that it doesn’t really matter if the story is accurate or not; if others perceive the leader that way, then that is their reality.
As the leadership expert Warren Bennis told us once, leaders need to see reality as it truly is and deal with it directly. In Judy’s case, she quickly understood that the new executives perceived her as a narrow thinker who couldn’t be trusted with system-level strategies.
Step 2: Take Time to Grieve, Then Have an Intentional Plan to Move Forward
An interesting aspect of the brand-recovery process is realizing that it is very similar to the emotion of grief. A leader, therefore, should be given the time to mourn her old brand. While she was still the same person with the same skills and behaviors, somehow Judy’s professional stature had fallen, and she needed to accept it and develop a plan to move forward.
The grieving process starts with denial, moves on to anger, bargaining and then depression, until it finally reaches acceptance and the leader is ready to take action. A skilled coach can help the leader move through these stages more quickly and effectively than when the leader tries to do it on his or her own. Coaches accomplish this by listening intently, providing the necessary support, and making sure the leader keeps on progressing and doesn’t get stuck. Judy accepted the coaching feedback and started to work intentionally to recover her old brand.
Step 3: Reframe and Practice
A leader seeking to recover his or her brand needs to develop two parallel—and equally important—paths to brand recovery. The first path consists of reframing the negative story that is circulating. Here, the leader focuses on interactions with her boss and other strategic partners. For Judy, that involved being intentional about creating opportunities for interactions rather than waiting for the opportunities to present themselves. Working with Judy, we identified other strategic partners who were influential across the health system and whose opinions mattered to the CEO.
We role-played the types of interactions that Judy would have with them and how she could show appropriate humility and vulnerability in asking for their advice and support.
Working in parallel to reframing, the leader then practices the actual behavioral changes. For Judy, the focus was on how she could show that she is a strategic, big-picture thinker by creating “anchor points” for the other executives to remember. She took the advice to volunteer to lead system-level initiatives that required her to work with other hospital CFOs and to showcase her leadership potential to the system executives. Basically, Judy’s behavior needed to match the new story that she was creating.
As Judy worked intentionally for more than six months, her leadership brand began to recover. Slowly but surely, her boss and the system executives started to trust her more. In our follow-up interviews with them, they expressed sentiments such as, “Wow, Judy is such an asset to the system.” With more hard work, she regained her rock-star status and was again considered for system-level opportunities.
Brand recovery is one of the most challenging endeavors in a leader’s professional career. To navigate this important transformation, leaders need to have self-awareness, humility, and the motivation to change and seek help if possible.
Amer Kaissi, PhD, is an executive coach at MEDI Leadership, a professor of healthcare administration at Trinity University and an ACHE Member (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is also the author of Intangibles: The Unexpected Traits of High-Performing Healthcare Leaders, winner of the 2019 ACHE James A. Hamilton Book of the Year Award. Lee Angus, CPA, is president/executive coach at MEDI Leadership (email@example.com).