Self-promotion v. corporate branding: a dilemma for women CEOs?

In today’s media-saturated business world, a company’s image is inextricably linked to the reputation of the CEO. Wall Street analysts, marketers and corporate communicators understand the importance of a CEO’s personal brand and how it affects demand for a company’s products or services and its market value.

The “personal brand” of Marc Benioff of or Tesla’s Elon Musk is an extension of the company. And there are any number of other high-profile male CEOs, who are recognized as industry leaders. How many similarly high-profile women CEOs are there? After HP’s Meg Whitman, who ran for public office, and a handful of others, it is hard to come up with names. Granted, unfortunately there are simply not as many women as men in the C-suite. However, perhaps the lack of women CEOs with well-defined personal brands is an issue that goes deeper than their respective numbers.

During my 25 years in corporate communications, I have observed many women CEOs that do not eagerly embrace communications tools and strategies to build a powerful personal brand. They are often more reluctant to express their personal values, beliefs and business philosophy than their male counterparts, and frequently, I see successful women leaders who want to stay on “safe” ground, sticking to unassailable fact-based positions.

What’s behind their reticence? I have a theory: On the way up, women CEOs worked incredibly hard just to prove they were as competent (and more so) as men. They had to show they were good team players in order to win the support of colleagues. Advocating a point of view, stretching the boundaries and sharing a bigger “vision” are leadership traits that are subjective, individual and highly visible. Given history, it’s not surprising that women CEOs may err on the side of staying low profile for fear of being criticized as “self-promotional” or grandstanding.

For example, we see women leaders who are press-shy, avoiding media engagement except in the most controlled situations. They seem reluctant to step outside what they see as the confines of their professional roles. One client refused to discuss her accomplishments in building a major data business from the ground up: “I’ll only talk about our product, not myself.” I call this “The Hillary Problem”: Feeling more secure in the role of competent project manager instead of inspirational, but potentially controversial, leader.

While the term personal brand may sound ego-centric, developing an authentic personal brand can add tremendous value to your organization. As a woman leader, what is your personal brand? I believe it is all about becoming known for what you stand for in addition to what you do in your job. Your brand is the “why” behind decisions, choices and results. Inevitably, the “why” involves some subjectivity – and this is where I see women reluctant to capitalize on the credibility that they have earned as CEOS and leaders. Yet I argue that it is absolutely mission critical: It might well be an essential, if unwritten, part of your job description.

Where to start developing a personal brand and leveraging it for the greater good of your company? By working closely with your in-house communications team and public relations advisors, you can develop a strategic plan that will establish and grow your personal brand. It’s not necessary to undergo a personality transplant and become a “celebrity” CEO or another Sheryl Sandberg. Rather, with the right advice and collaboration with professionals, select the issues, forums and communications channels that mesh with your core values and support your organization’s agenda.

“Leaning in” to build and maintain your personal CEO brand isn’t about self-promotion: it’s about advancing your own agenda and that of your company – to step out of your personal comfort zone for the greater good.

About the Author

Pat HardenPatricia (Pat) Harden founded Harden Partners to help companies be heard, known and valued. Pat brings clients the benefits of a lifelong passion for communication and the desire to help organizations take their game to new levels. Under her leadership, Harden Partners has grown steadily from a one-person consultancy in her guest room to an award-winning, mid-sized agency serving the financial, healthcare and professional services sectors – and the amazing technologies that support them.

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