Early on in our careers, we are schooled in the importance of the elevator pitch, so that we can deliver a concise answer if somebody important we meet in passing asks, “What are you working on?” or “What do you do here?” The succinct sales pitch is also an essential skill for entrepreneurs taking turns in front of an audience of investors: they have to be able to capture their killer idea in a dozen or so words.
But in our consulting work with senior leaders, we find there is a specific type of elevator pitch that executives often overlook. It’s the answer to the questions “So what kind of leader are you?” and “What should we know about your leadership style?” Having a thoughtful reply at the ready could be a factor in landing a promotion. But more crucially, providing clarity about your leadership style will help you to build trust with your team. Think of it as your personal leadership brand—what you stand for, including the values that guide your behaviors as a leader, and what you expect from others.
It’s not that people don’t have anything to say in response to these questions. Some will volunteer that they believe in “servant leadership,” or that they are results-driven or believe in excellence and integrity.
And they’re not wrong. It’s just that they use phrases that are so general and at such a high altitude that they don’t provide anything concrete in terms of the behaviors that people can expect from them. The sentiments get muddled with corporate mission statements and purpose statements that often default to a version of “making the world a better place,” a cliché that can easily be skewered. (Think of the HBO series Silicon Valley, a satirical look at life in the tech startup world.)
The value of a personal brand
Just as with corporate values, the real test for your personal leadership brand comes during moments of pressure and stress. Do you abandon your values, telling yourself that you’ll come back to them when things settle down? Or do they matter even more in those moments?
What are the three values that are most important to you as a leader and a colleague—that is, the consistent behaviors that everyone can rely on from you?
When I interviewed Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she talked about the importance of being predictable and reliable as a leader. If you can clearly articulate how you would act in a given situation, “people don’t have that burden of always thinking, ‘I wonder what he or she would do.’ It’s pretty clear.”
For example, I was struck by one of the principles that Ron Williams shared with his team when he was CEO of Aetna. He made clear that he expected everyone to always strive to be 15% better. “People can start thinking, ‘If I just keep doing what I’m doing, that’s okay.’ But the world has become dramatically more challenging. Your business is bigger. It’s more complex technologically. You’ve got to master [new things]. You are never done.”
When I asked Williams how that approach came about, he said that professors at the community college he attended, and others in his life, provided encouragement regarding his potential. “The people who were really supportive helped me develop this philosophy of always striving to be better. Eventually, that was distilled into the idea of always pushing to be 15% better in all aspects of life.”
The leadership challenge
Here are some of the prompt questions we use when we help executives work through the exercise of developing their personal, authentic leadership brand:
• What are the three values that are most important to you as a leader and a colleague—that is, the consistent behaviors that everyone can rely on from you?
• How have you lived those values in your career?
• Why are they important to you for driving success?
• If you were recruiting someone to join your team, what would you say to them about your leadership approach and philosophy?
If you try to answer these questions, be certain to give yourself plenty of time for introspection. Make sure you steer well clear of platitudes or any generic statements. Imagine yourself taking over a new team of direct reports who ask you a series of questions in your first meeting with them: “What are your personal leadership values? Why are they important to you? What do they look like in practice? Where did they come from?”
When people talk about leaders they admire, they’re often described as “authentic.” In the context of leadership, that means trustworthy, reliable, genuine, and having a sense that what you see it what you get. If you’re lucky enough to work for an authentic leader, you won’t have to spend energy wondering which version of the boss is going to show up on a given day, depending on either their mood or the stresses they are facing.
That type of consistency should be the goal of all those aiming for the top. So, back to that elevator pitch: do you understand who you are as a leader?