What’s Better Than Branding the Organization with the CEO?

by cv harquail on December 9, 2008

200812081505.jpg Graeme Martin , Director of the Centre for Reputation Management through People at the University of Glasgow, has written an interesting post on his blog, about the Dangers of Branding Leaders .

Writing about the practice of creating an organization’s brand / identity from the celebrity personality of the CEO as a strategy for improving the organization’s ability to attract and retain employees, Graeme argues that there are real dangers associated with this practice. Some of these dangers include:

  • an over-reliance on the CEO’s behavior for influencing the organization (when research shows that leaders rarely have a major impact on organizational performance), and
  • a tendency towards counter-productive narcissistic behaviors by these leaders, whose egos get stoked by their personal identities being used to represent the organization.

Graeme thus questions:

Is it better to have leadership brands that are less reliant on powerful individuals and more on distributed leadership throughout the organization, i.e. build organization systems and brands where the actions of powerful and skilled individuals matter least?

I don’t think that the solution is to build organizational systems where "powerful and skilled individuals matter least" — and based on his published views I doubt that Graeme means to suggest that organizational systems should make skills unimportant! But, here’s what I want to clarify about celebrity CEOs, leaders as brand, and organizational identity:

A Better Practice

Rather than linking the CEO and the organizational brand… the challenge and opportunity is to build an organization where all/most individuals contribute to the organization’s identity, through systems of behavior and (where possible) attitudes that create and reinforce what defines the organization’s identity.

Once that’s done, it’s easier for org. communications people to create an organizational brand / identity that is compelling, because that identity / brand will be more real . The communication professionals can promote the organization’s image more confidently, because the organization’s defining characteristics will be designed into the organization itself. These defining attributes will not be dependent upon the presence and participation of the CEO.

Ultimately, this kind of authentic organizational brand /identity will be more attractive to potential and current members, because members can actually participate in it themselves, not by association with the CEO but by participation in the organization.

Why is creating an authentic organization better than branding the organization with the CEO?

Because the excitement and appeal is no longer about being in the company of these celebrity CEOs and their brands, but is instead about being part of the company itself.


Graeme Martin December 10, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Great site and I’m going to have a deeper look at your paper on employee branding. I’ve just finished a couple of book chapters on the topic and have a big research project currently underway, so keen to look at good insights into this field.

You’re right in that I’m not arguing leadership and senior leadership doesn’t matter, but just a little less than we think or should think.

The ideas on leadership branding, however, do seem to be important to achieve the kinds of authenticity you are seeking. I’m constantly working with senior management teams that have to live up to the most unrealistic expecatations, which they can never hope to fulfil. I guess managing expectations and distributed leadership are key elements in the solution

Sandy Piderit January 8, 2009 at 12:10 pm

With all the ups and downs of Apple stock every time a new rumor about Steve Jobs’ health pops up, it’s becoming apparent that Apple folks need to be thinking more about these issues.

Just wanted to let you know I’m still reading your blog!

CV Harquail January 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm

And I yours!

I think the whole issue with Jobs, his health, and his reasonably-limited willingness to discuss it it fascinating– we should post on it, no?

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