Is it a good idea to build a brand around a charismatic leader?

This is a question that arises repeatedly in the business of public affairs people. I believe building profile around a charismatic leader is one of the highest risk public affairs strategies.

If you look at a brand like Virgin, it has thrived and grown thanks to its charismatic founder, Richard Branson. Apple thrived under co-founder, Steve Jobs, languished for a while when he left and enjoyed a resurgence on his return.

These examples seem to answer 'yes' to the question, particularly in the instances where the leader also happens to be the founder. But for companies employing mere mortals, the question is far more challenging. Rock star CEOs can be as problematic as they are advantageous, as much for the boards to which they report as for the company's wider reputation.

Let's look at some of the issues they present:

Reputation

When an organisation surfs its CEO's personality, the fortunes of its reputation ride the same wave. In an age of political correctness, faux outrage and social media trolling, high profile personalities are scrutinised and exposed like never before. Every behavioural quirk is amplified many thousands of times, without regard to accuracy or source. 

For this reason, the charismatic leader as the face of the business is akin to betting the house on red. Any misdemeanour will reflect on the board that made the appointment, organisational values and social alignment. The impact is internal and external.

The reputational risks of contracting celebrities and sports stars as brand ambassadors are well known. There’s a litany of examples that I don’t need to reiterate here. The risks associated with building brand profile through an individual employed within the company are no different.

The #metoo campaign has provided a rich vein of news stories about CEOs and executives around the world accused of sexual harassment and worse. #metoo is a great example of how amplification through social media can quickly give voice and effect to community values, rapidly escalating issues to activist causes that give rise to re-assessment of behaviours and what some believed were ‘accepted norms’ stretching back over decades.

The point is that the community is in control of what is acceptable behaviour and practice and no individual is immune from retrospective scrutiny in the court of public opinion.

Your values

A big question to think about is the capacity of an individual to truly reflect and articulate your organisational values, which derive from your collective behaviour, heritage and aspirations.

The key words here are ‘collective’ and ‘behaviour’. Every individual is different, being a product of their own DNA and the environment that has shaped them. From an organisation perspective, collective values are a far more robust influencer of behaviour and reputation because of the inherent checks and balances that exist within groups.

Apart from managing the risk of being sacked, there are few checks and balances on individual values and behaviours. In the event that an individual oversteps the mark, removing or reassigning that person is often too late to limit the reputational damage on your organisation.

Continuity of narrative

When your high-profile person inevitably leaves, what is the brand impact? 

This absolutely depends whether their period at the helm was positive or negative for the brand. A departure prompted by reputational damage brought on the business may provide it with an opportunity to leverage a narrative for change and reform.

However, ponder what the impact to Virgin’s profile might be if Richard Branson left. As an Apple devotee, I saw what happened when Steve Jobs left - the horrible beige box era in which the company lost sight of the user-centred design ethos that made it unique. 

Continuity is therefore a double-edged sword, but there is one irrefutable fact - your high profile personality will leave the organisation at some time, either by choice, circumstance, or in a pine box. You need to think about this as you consider making a hero of the CEO, or other organisational leaders.

Client alignment

This is a phenomenon that I have seen emerge in quite a few businesses, but particularly consulting and technology organisations.

Because of the businesses in which it most frequently occurs, this is an issue that extends well beyond the C-suite and into high-value subject matter experts within them. It is an issue that derives from ease of building personal profile through social media, blogs and other platforms. 

The dichotomy in this is that consultancy firms grow their client portfolio on the basis of the quality and, to some degree, profile of the people they employ. In the short term, profile building by key employees works well. Over the longer term, the likelihood increases that the individual employee's personal brand is a greater attractor and retainer of business than the employer's brand.

It means that when that high-profile employee departs the business and notwithstanding 'no compete' clauses in their contract, clients are strongly motivated to follow that employee out the door.

What does it reflect about the team?

Piggy-backing on the profile of an individual within your organisation can communicate some things that are probably undesirable:

  • That there is a lack of depth in your leadership team;

  • Your organisation is carrying substantial ‘key man’ risk and is very dependent on one individual for its success;

  • That you have a top-down, command-and-control culture, rather than a collaborative one; and

  • Linked to the previous point, that others are not empowered as subject matter experts to deliver value to your clients.

The purpose of this article is simply to highlight some of the risks you might consider as you create a framework for leveraging a high profile individual around whom to promote your brand.

I am not suggesting it is always a bad idea, but to understand and manage the risks before unleashing that strategy should always be your starting point.