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A Leader's Brand

A Leader's Brand | Human Resource Executive Online As tough times loom, employees look to executives and managers for guidance more than ever. Savvy leaders know that perception matters, and turn their attention to the image they project to those around them.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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Mike Crownover, senior vice president of human resources for San Antonio-based Valero Energy, says that he really, honestly does care.

That's an important proclamation for the senior HR officer in any company -- especially as the world's economic climate roughens. More employees are worried about their futures, and if HR doesn't seem to care, it can appear that the company itself doesn't care. Employees can easily fall down a slippery slope -- from feeling unappreciated to apathetic, from apathetic to underperforming. HR needs to be approachable. Crownover himself needs to be approachable, and he knows it.

Yet when he attended the Center for Creative Leadership's "Leadership at the Peak" program earlier this year, a 360-degree assessment indicated that his peers, subordinates and superiors viewed him as somewhat lacking in "affection," which translated to less empathy than would be ideal. Crownover's approachability took a hit.

"Maybe I'm not as sensitive in the workplace as I should be," he says. "I might act like, 'You should deal with your problems, and then let's go to work' as opposed to, 'Come in, let's talk about it and how it's affecting you.' I don't think I'm seen as caring about things that other people think I should care about."

He pauses, then clarifies: "That's not how I really feel, but it's how I'm being perceived."

That's the tricky thing about an executive's "image" -- the subject of a recently published CCL Press guidebook entitled Building an Authentic Leadership Image. Image is in the eye of the beholder. The issue isn't how a leader acts; it's how people interpret the way he or she acts.

Suppose someone doesn't often make eye contact. While a leader may avoid eye contact because he or she is shy, it's often seen by others as deceptive. An executive might walk into a worker's office without speaking to anyone because he or she is preoccupied, but this failure to interact with co-workers can appear rude or standoffish.

"The world today is so busy, and executives don't think about the image they're portraying to the people around them," says Corey Criswell, one of the guidebook's authors and a research associate for Greensboro, N.C.-based CCL. "They don't think about the people one, two or three levels down in the organization who might form their impression of the organization's financial condition from the look on a person's face as he or she walks down the hallway, or the fact that the person didn't say hello to them when they were riding in the elevator."

What's more, in the 150 leaders CCL studied for the guidebook, a positive image correlated very highly with perceptions about leadership ability. Put more simply, employees are more likely to think that a leader with a good image is a good leader, and that a leader with a bad image is a bad leader.

"Image, connoted as 'how you're being perceived,' is extremely important because perception is reality in other people's minds," says Canadian organizational psychologist and consultant Jonathon Kovachess. "You need to project the right kind of information and image to the organization at all times. There's just too much potential negative spinoff from not getting that right."

Kovachess says one large problem is that, not only do many executives have an image flaw that undermines their business interactions, many of them don't even know about the problem. People tend to think that they "are" a certain way, says Kovachess, and tend to dismiss or rationalize evidence to the contrary. For this reason, a key goal is to train leaders in "introspective intelligence," so they learn to assess their own behaviors with an eye toward how others might perceive them.

Self-Assessments

This is where 360-degree assessments come in handy. By comparing the scores that executives give themselves on certain traits (empowering, friendly, controlling) to the scores given by those around them, Kovachess can gauge how accurately leaders are able to see themselves, and then teach them to make corrections.

"Say your results show that you don't listen," says Kovachess. "A coach can set you up in a meeting and say, 'OK, you're not going to make any suggestions whatsoever. You're going to solicit feedback, you're going to come to a group consensus, and then you're going to take the best suggestions and implement them. And then you're going to get follow-up input on how well you're doing that.' "

Obviously, this kind of feedback and follow-up is vital if a leader is to make any headway in truly changing his or her image.

"You have to go to someone you trust in your organization and say, 'I'm working on these things. I want you to tell me if it's working or not,' " says Crownover.

For him, that person was his organizational director. After learning that he was perceived as being only moderately compassionate, he made a plan to change that aspect of his image. He vowed to listen more, to talk less and to reserve judgment about a person's situation. He resolved not to assume that he knew what an employee's problem was ahead of time, and to stop trying to solve the problem before fully hearing it.

Crownover says he will undergo another 360 down the road to see if his image has evolved to one of a more caring leader. In the meantime, his OD will be keeping an eye on him, making sure he isn't reverting to old ways or, conversely, overdoing the new ways.

According to CCL's Criswell, lasting, believable changes in image have to strike a balance between the old behavior and the new. In his own case, Crownover feels it would be difficult to walk that line without oversight.

"If you don't have accountability, you run the risk of people thinking you just went off to charm school and are trying to be something you're not," he says.

Authentic Self

The issue of authenticity is big enough that CCL included it in the title of its guidebook, and it's one that Criswell says is a big problem in organizations. The survey that became the basis for the guidebook (conducted at CCL's "Leadership At The Peak" program) found that, while 97 percent of leaders at CCL's program felt they brought their authentic selves to work, only 50 percent of those further down the organizational chain felt their leaders were authentic.

The problem gets worse when executives try to change their image, thereby creating a catch-22. Leaders who have a bad image need to change. But the minute they begin to do so, they run the risk of looking as if they're "faking it," which actually makes their image worse.

With this in mind, Criswell offers two guidelines for leaders who want to change.

First, any change must be made slowly. If you're an introvert, attend one function every so often instead of going to all of them. If you're seen as disinterested, ask an employee just a few personal questions rather than going in on Monday and inquiring about everyone's weekend. Second, a leader needs to work within his or her own personality rather than trying to be something he or she is not. Polishing image is about showing off the best of what is already within you.

"For instance, not all leaders need to be charismatic," says Rich Wellins, senior vice president of global HR consulting firm Development Dimensions International, located in Bridgeville, Pa. "If you're a more serious type of leader, then you need to be true to yourself in being a serious leader. Each leader has [his or her] own unique brand and unique style. Fighting it makes you seem phony."

Wellins says his own "leadership brand" is eccentric. He doesn't wear socks; he has a lot of toys on his desk; he is a known chocoholic. This is who he is, he says.

"The key to being true to yourself is knowing that there is a good side and a dark side to any personality," he says. "Take 'eccentric.' It's all right to be a little bit eccentric, but if you're too eccentric, you think everything is about you, and that's not good."

In the past, this excess eccentricity hasn't been good for Wellins. He used to walk down the halls in his own world, oblivious to people who would say hello to him. This changed when he got the surprising (to him) feedback that people felt he was rude. Wellins now makes a conscious attempt to say hello -- but staying true to his leadership brand, he still doesn't wear socks.

New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances uses many of DDI's assessments in its leadership training programs. Manager of Training and Development Drew Von Tish says it's not at all uncommon for leaders to exhibit blind spots in their perceptions of how others see them.

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"We had a very successful executive that we did a 360 on," Von Tish explains. "He was extremely bright, well-regarded and had many superlatives mentioned in his 360. The guy was very talented, but he was perceived as being slightly arrogant. He was very bright and very capable, and was seen as being impatient with people who were not operating at his level."

When the executive reviewed his results, Von Tish says, he was surprised to find out that certain behaviors -- a somewhat brash manner of speaking and frustration with people who didn't think and act at his faster clip -- caused others to view him as somewhat impatient, even elitist.

"He probably never realized it was occurring," says Von Tish.

To repair his image, the executive sat down with his manager and mapped out a list of negative behaviors to reduce and new, positive ones -- such as patience -- to instill. After six months, he will undergo another 360 to see where improvements have and haven't been made -- and to see if the people who work with him now see him as more tolerant and down-to-earth.

Behavior Modification

One of the concepts Laurent Bentitou took away from CCL's training was a better understanding of the source of behaviors that may need to be changed.

"You have to understand the psychology that drives your behavior," says Bentitou, vice president of human resources and talent management for Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile USA. "Its important to those around you that your approach for changing or improving be heartfelt and sustainable, or you run the risk of being disingenuous."

Bentitou's own 360 indicated that those on his team saw him at times as being more controlling than empowering, he recalls.

"I had received feedback from my team that I wasn't giving them as much personal latitude in making decisions as they felt capable of doing," he says. "They had the ability, but I wasn't always offering them the opportunity to make those decisions."

Bentitou determined that the root cause of these controlling behaviors was the fact that, as a leader, he was ultimately responsible for the results, and that his team's work would reflect on him. What the team perceived as a need for control came out of his desire to ensure quality. In addressing the problem, he needed to find a way to empower employees while remaining confident that projects would succeed with less of his involvement -- to feel sure that the people under him would find an efficient and effective way to get things done and ultimately produce a quality outcome.

"I reflected a lot about methods and approaches I learned at CCL for letting go while remaining accountable," he says. "The way I had to approach it was not just by letting it go and saying, 'It's yours,' because at the end of the day, I still had accountability for the effort. Instead, I had to coach and develop them so that I felt comfortable that they had the competencies, skills and abilities to achieve the result."

Bentitou says this tactic of "coaching in order to let go" is only one of the strategies he's been actively pursuing since returning from the CCL program. Another was learning to manage for results rather than tactics. Instead of managing the day-to-day way in which the team worked on a project, he'd look at the end result and put more emphasis on the quality of the end product.

After about two and a half months of implementing these changes, Bentitou underwent another 360 assessment, which revealed that his team perceived him as less controlling and more empowering.

CCL's Criswell says that without a specific focus on image, it would be easy for leaders to assume that they are perceived by others in the same way they view themselves. But, because perceptions differ, it is important for organizations to conduct the necessary 360-degree surveys to check up on leaders' images.

Valero's Crownover says that, while most companies spend a lot of time and effort to train leaders to be competent, he feels it's at least as important to train them to know how others perceive them, and make sure they're not sending out the wrong signals.

"Executives have to take image as seriously as organizational issues," he says. "The same shortcoming in an organizational issue, I can cover it up. I can get someone to manage it for me. But I can't outsource my image. I have to deal with this."

Leaders who ignore the way others perceive them do so at the organization's peril, he adds.

"I'm the senior VP of HR. I represent the company. If I'm not approachable, then the company's not approachable. And," he adds, "it can come off as, 'the company doesn't care.' "

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