A reputation is a powerful tool for leaders—and one that is often overlooked. Your reputation sets expectations. It establishes a frequency that allows people to tune in to your message. It communicates for you when you’re not in the room. (How often have you channeled a colleague or mentor?) The most important thing to know about a reputation—your own and your team’s—is that it isn’t formed randomly. It emerges as a result of the way you think, act, learn, engage, and communicate—which are all things you can directly control. As you get more familiar with the way you are wired, you also gain the ability to purposefully shape (and reshape) your reputation.
“A reputation is a powerful tool for leaders—and one that is often overlooked.”
Not long ago, I had the honor of being a guest speaker at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in a class on Reputation Management. It was a great experience because I got to stand up and tell stories, which I love to do. Also, the fact that this class exists offers reassurance that graduate schools are helping students understand one of the most complex—and rewarding—challenges they will encounter as they move through their careers. The most exciting part of preparing for this lecture was being able to make the connections between purposefully creating a reputation and growing as a leader.
A core belief at Nvolv is that leaders have to engage in the process of individual change while they are driving change in their organizations. It’s a pretty simple equation: as you define new ways of working, you also need to define new ways of leading. If leaders don’t do this, a gap emerges between the vision for change and the reality of how change is being led. In my experience, much of the dysfunction that exists within organizations is a direct reflection of this gap caused by old leadership styles running up against new expectations.
“…as you define new ways of working, you also need to define new ways of leading.”
To grow as a leader (and here’s where we come back to the idea of reputation), you need to take stock in the beliefs that shape your working style. What tendencies do you fall back on? What triggers the appearance of your greatest strengths and weaknesses? By taking an honest look in the mirror to see yourself the ways others see you (the good and the bad), you’ll gain insight into what you need to do to shape your leadership style to exploit your strengths. This will buy you the room to develop the areas where you’re challenged. These are the first things on the path to shaping your reputation.
At Stanford, I shared a story about a leader I worked with who was stepping up to a higher role in a $10B corporation —from the head of North American Sales to President and COO. He had the reputation of sales executive—extroverted, motivated, and with a hands-on approach to hitting (and exceeding) goals. In ascending to the executive team and taking on global responsibilities, he discovered the need to actively reshape his reputation to help him gain the trust of the new team he was leading. This transition—from operator to executive—is one of the most difficult in business to make. You are suddenly moved back from the front lines and the action, and given even more responsibility for effecting change. At this point, your reputation becomes more important than ever, because it starts to occupy the places you can’t be. Your reputation helps people know what you stand for, what you expect from them, and how to align their actions with the direction you set.
The work I did with this leader involved explicitly thinking through his new role and deciding which behaviors and skills he should keep, which he needed to dump (things that would keep his reputation stuck as a sales guy), and which new skills he needed to develop. In the process of doing this, we started asking questions about his learning style and his process for managing change. His first response was that he didn’t have a style or a process—but after some self-reflection, he realized that he had relied on some very specific ways of doing things all his life.
“…we started asking questions about his learning style and his process for managing change.”
For example, he learned by listening to people debate. This insight led to his reformatting the summits he ran with his global team. He eliminated long presentations and readouts and focused instead on creating more conversations between people. In this setting, he was able to learn more about his team and their needs than he could by sitting through endless hours of PowerPoint slides. This venue also allowed him to highlight his strengths as a leader—the empathy of his facilitation style that helped him to get at the truth of different teams’ situations, and his skills at building relationships that allowed him to quickly bond with the members of his global team. Simply by changing the meeting structure, he created an experience that allowed his direct reports to get to know him, believe in him, trust him, and subsequently amplify his reputation when they went back to their regions.
Another core belief at Nvolv is that when it comes to leadership, there is nothing more important than understanding what makes you tick. Most leaders fail when they pretend to be someone who they are not. To carry this story forward, another part of our work involved this new President and COO writing his own leadership book—a document that described how he thinks, learns, weighs decisions, and leads. No matter who you are, you have a process for doing all of these things that you’ve learned over the course of your life—on playgrounds and in academic settings, from coaches, mentors, and colleagues. By documenting this, he arrived at a clearer understanding of who he truly was, while also creating something the Board could review if they decided to consider him as a CEO. By purposefully authoring his reputation and broadcasting it, this leader shortened the time it would have taken him to become effective in his role (which in many cases is a make-or-break moment in someone’s career) and started to position himself for his next role.
“Most leaders fail when they pretend to be someone who they are not.”
The only downside to the Stanford event was that there is never enough time for all the stories to get told or questions asked. But if there is a main message I wanted to get across, it’s that being an effective leader requires being completely honest about who you are, and then purposefully using this self-knowledge to construct an authentic and compelling story about who you can be as a leader. This is something that I believe separates good leaders from the rare ones who can step into new roles of increasing responsibility and make an immediate impact on their organizations.