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Getting Your Leadership Story Right

Moving from one company to another can be a challenging and exciting time for any leader.whats-your-story

It’s challenging in that we give up the security of comfortable patterns and familiar relationships.

It’s exciting because it is usually for a bigger and better role that provides new opportunities to learn, be challenged, and work with new people.

It’s also an opportunity to, if not necessarily reinvent, at least refresh the leader’s personal “brand” or identity.

It’s an opportunity that no leader should squander.

Consider Thomas, a classic success story by most measures. Thomas had been at a company for nearly 25 years. He joined the company as a laborer on a production line when he was 18 but through intelligence and drive he worked his way up to become general manager of one of the business verticals reporting to a segment president who reported to the CEO. In fact, he was often referred to as “the Wonder Kid” because of the precocious intelligence and business savvy he showed early in his career.

But Thomas wanted more—he was still young but was passed over twice for larger roles and he couldn’t figure out why.

The problem was that even though he was no longer that 18-year old kid on the factory floor, there were still people who remembered him that way. While they respected him and Thomas was broadly acknowledged as being smarter and more effective than almost anyone around him, there were still too many people who remembered him as “the Kid.” A perception had been anchored in the minds of just enough of the decision makers to keep him from going any further.

An opportunity came along for Thomas to move to a new company in a role similar to the one he was in. It was not a step up, necessarily, but it was an opportunity to rewrite the narrative about him—he would be going into his new company at a high level and that would be the perception people started with; the image of the kid on the factory floor would not be an issue.

Thomas, being as smart as he is, went into his new role with a 100-day plan* that included all of the things a new leaders is supposed to do. But it also included an activity that most people overlook when they make transitions: he focused on what he wanted his leadership brand to be and he took steps to establish that brand.

The opportunity to rewrite one’s leadership brand is something that doesn’t come along that often, and it is not only something that failed leaders should do—even the best leaders carry some baggage from their past in their organizations they are in. Thus, this is an opportunity to refresh, if not necessarily reinvent.

Here are some steps to take to establish your leadership brand in a new company:

Before you go, take the opportunity to do a leadership best-practice analysis. Who are the leaders you admire? What qualities do they have that you would like to have? Which of those qualities do can you realistically develop? Create a plan for developing them.

Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. Continue to work on the weaknesses, of course, but be sure to use the new role as an opportunity to leverage your strengths, especially strengths you didn’t get to use fully in your old role.

Get your story straight. When you start at a new company, especially in a leadership role, you will have many opportunities to meet new people and tell them about yourself. Spend time refining your story about yourself and stick to it. The story must be based on facts, of course, but it should deliver the story you want known about you. Write out a few paragraphs and then read them through your new co-workers’ eyes. Is it a story that inspires confidence? Is it a story that positions you as an experienced leader? Is it a story that positions you as a likeable person? Your story should not be arrogant (don’t make it a litany of all your grand accomplishments), but it shouldn’t be overly humble and self-deprecating either—you need to come across as someone who is confident and competent, but not a self-absorbed jerk.

Be very clear about your values and expectations, and be sure everyone knows up front what you expect. This issue is closely tied to “get your story straight.” We are natural story-making creatures. When we encounter others, especially people in power, we try to figure them out and we do so by creating a narrative about them. We use the information we have for the narrative, but we tend to fill in the blanks with our own biases and assumptions. Leaders in new roles need to make sure they don’t leave important blank spaces in the narrative—people should know what your values and expectations are so they don’t make (and act upon) wrong assumptions.

Let people know how you like to be communicated to. Some people like email, others hate it and prefer phone calls or face to face conversations. Nothing frustrates subordinates more than a leader who seems unresponsive. They create reasons for the lack of responsiveness that become part of the narrative, and they are usually not flattering. Much of this frustration occurs because no one figures out that they are simply using the wrong mechanism to communicate to each other. Therefore, let people know right away what is the best way to reach you and how you like to receive information.

Remember that everything you say or do sends a message, and act accordingly. Most leaders have an internal narrative about themselves as just a “regular” person who should be treated as “one of the team.” When someone has been in a company for a long time, they actually were once “just” part of the team and probably struggled to balance that history with the executive distance needed in leadership roles. Subordinates need to see the leader as someone who stands above the team—an authority they can turn to when they need guidance, support, or reinforcement. Excessive humility will undermine the subordinates’ confidence in a leader.

Subordinates are also aware that the leader’s decisions can affect—positively or not—their future in the company. Accordingly, they observe and interpret everything the leader does and try to figure out any possible implications to their own self-interests. When leaders gets too comfortable they can forget the impact their words and deeds can have on the team—their humor and their frustrations send messages that are amplified beyond those of the average employee. Shrewd leaders use this to their advantage, showing extra-emotion at strategic times to send a deliberate message. Forgetting amplification and letting your guard down at the wrong time has the opposite effect, damaging your reputation more than you might realize.

While this blog is focused on leaders in transition, all leaders should remember these things and implement them—working on your personal leadership brand is something you should be doing all the time.

*There are a number of good books on planning for your first 100 days in a new role; I like “You’re in Charge–Now What?” by Neff and Citrin.