Whether one knows it or not, they essentially already have a personal brand in place.
No matter whether they manage it or completely dismiss it, everyone has a form of a personal brand through the relations they have with others and the behaviour they showcase.
Just like any other people, business leaders have their own personal brand. However, in their case, they must take special care given their leading role in their respective company.
This leads to the question: can a CEO’s own brand potentially damage or pose risks to the company in question?
MaltaCEOs.mt reached out to Employer Branding & Employee Communications Strategist Vanessa Camenzuli, together with various business leaders to explore this issue, and to learn more about whether their personal brand can be separated from that of the company.
Ms Camenzuli explained that especially in situations where a business is family-owned and in a country of Malta’s size, it is “very difficult to distinguish between the reputation of the owner and that of the company. How often are we customers of a company because we know the CEO or the owner?”
She added: “There’s no escaping a personal brand, because a personal brand is based on how your actions, behaviours and ideas are perceived by others over a period of time. Therefore, whether you’re an employee or a CEO, it’s ‘what you are known for’ and what you stand for, beyond any external appearance or public effort. This is why – to some extent – we even have a personal brand in our personal lives with our friends!”
“In light of this, personal brands are built through reflective moments, possibly coaching and therapy spaces, and not in dressing rooms or social media platforms. These are only by-products of someone displaying their inner and authentic self,” she continued.
Jonathan Mifsud, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Buddy, who regularly posts personal and company-centred content on social media, explained that “people trust people”.
“Yes, brands grow and build a reputation over time, however at the core when choosing to work with a business, people are also taking other elements into consideration,” he said, before adding that “the biggest question” Buddy faced when initially starting out was whether they can earn people’s trust. If clients are not able to see the person behind the brand, then “obviously you can never win that trust”.
He added that given that corporate pages, “at least those on the small end of the spectrum”, do not have a significant amount of reach, being able to post as an individual allows Mr Mifsud to “share a personal story, one other people can relate to”, which results in increased impressions and activity when compared to business pages.
Switch CEO Richard Muscat Azzopardi was in agreement, remarking that part of the process of growing a successful brand is “to cultivate and build a public personal brand that honestly represents you”, as they are “far more relatable” and hence easier for audiences to identify the people behind the brand.
Matthew Zammit, Know Your Social Founder and Fractional Chief Product Officer (CPO) for Startups, added that personal branding is “all about taking responsibility over how you present yourself”, providing increased credibility.
Additionally, he said that a personal brand also makes one “stand out from the crowd”, as “everyone has degrees and a very well curated business brand”, but a “personal brand makes you unique”.
AX Group CEO Michael Warrington, who instead of social media, opts to grow his personal brand through other media channels, noted that leaders can adopt “many different approaches” to establishing their personal brand, very often through a style that “reflects their personality and aspirations”. Extroverts might opt for a “high public profile”, while others might seek a more “low-key approach”.
“Being recognised enables third parties to understand and follow or engage with a leader,” he added.
While a business leader might choose to grow their own personal brand publicly aside from that of the company, at the very heart of it, the two are “unavoidably going to be interlinked and might be very challenging to create a clear distinction”, Ms Camenzuli said.
“In some cases, companies can really benefit from a leader building their personal brand publicly, and on certain occasions key leaders can become the face of the company and a core part of its marketing strategy. In other cases, it may be a risk or a limitation to building the company’s brand and reputation. This is the case when a person’s actions and behaviours do not align with the company’s values – whether this is in a public space such as social media, or within four walls of a meeting room. There are a lot of benefits around hiring a CEO that embodies the company’s culture and values,” she added.
The other respondents were all in agreement, with Mr Muscat Azzopardi adding that Switch’s posts “represent a group of 20 individuals who are brought together by a shared purpose and a set of common values”. While he shares the same core values, he has a “wider set of values, drivers, and personal goals” than the firm has, and on the other hand, Switch has a “much narrower professional focus of interest” than he has on a personal level.
Farsons Group CEO Norman Aquilina also agreed, stating that the roles of a CEO and a company are “intrinsically linked” and “most certainly complementary in nature”.
Both the company’s and the business leader’s own brand need to work “hand in hand”, he said. “The convergence of a personality and corporate identity in a CEO is a powerful tool that brings to life the company brand, its values and a sense of purpose with all walks of society, be they business partners, customers, employees and the public at large,” Mr Aquilina continued.
He added that “to some extent, being a CEO is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle”, a factor which is more pronounced for public listed companies, in which CEOs are “more exposed and subject to regulatory and public scrutiny”.
The importance of reflecting on your actions and behaviours, and maintaining a healthy personal brand is of even more importance to business owners, Ms Camenzuli noted, as owners can “never say they have nothing to do with the company”, since they are so tied to its background. “While a CEO or other C-level executives can be replaced to a certain extent, an owner, whether they are still involved in the business or not, will always be linked to the business,” she added.
This is the case for notable business leaders from around the globe, such as Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates, Tesla and SpaceX Founder Elon Musk, and late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, among many others. These individuals have grown their personal brands to such levels that they are now widely regarded as the faces of their respective businesses.
To Mr Mifsud, this is entirely normal, as brands that have an “inspirational persona and a thought leader within the industry were always the likely winners in the race”. The aforementioned business giants were all thought leaders in their areas, and they shared their vision and values for their brands. This might have resulted in their personal brand outgrowing that of the company, yet Mr Mifsud explained that these “were all symbiotic relationships”.
“As humans we look for leaders. We do associate brands with values, but we also relate to humans who showcase these values, hence building a brand on my side was very intentional for the very same reasons,” he added.
“It’s not really an option not to give a face to your business and that face might as well be yours,” Mr Zammit said.
However, a personal brand should be a “byproduct of building”, being developed as one is constructing their product, and not a “forced persona which you put on”. Mr Zammit explained that this is an element that “many people get wrong”, as they try to “force something to do it in the ‘right way’ instead of trying to be genuine and relatable”.
This all boils down to the question of whether a notable personal brand can bring about risks or dangers to a company or the business leaders themselves, a prospect that Mr Muscat Azzopardi immediately shot down.
“While I’m careful about communicating my personal brand, I’ve never worked on cultivating a personal brand. I don’t change who I am for LinkedIn. And as long as you’re authentic with your posts, you’re in no danger,” he explained.
“The benefits far outweigh the dangers, because the ‘dangers’ are actually benefits in my book. My personal brand helps people know who they’re going to work with, and if they don’t like it then we’ll all save some time,” Mr Muscat Azzopardi added.
Mr Warrington was more sceptical, noting that should a business leader leave a company when their personal brand is greater than that of the company, then the organisation will suffer. “Also in many situations, a negative event in the CEO’s life or brand will negatively impact and can reflect on the company’s image. In small communities such as ours, this effect is further amplified,” he explained.
He remarked that instead of one outweighing the other, the two should “complement” each other. “In certain circumstances, one needs to be seen and to actively convey their thoughts and objectives to the public while at other times, it pays to stay out of the public limelight,” Mr Warrington added.
Mr Aquilina stated that a strong personal brand carries “reputational value”, while a strong corporate brand is an “important asset which leads itself to several invaluable benefits”, including as a reputable and reliable business partner and as a good corporate citizen, prompting a “strong following from a supporting customer base”.
“Experience has shown me that while many CEOs know that leadership is about making others better as a result of their presence, not equally as many recognise the importance of making sure that same impact lasts in their absence. Ultimately, this is a key component within the legacy a truly successful CEO should aim for, as opposed to overly focusing on personal achievements,” he concluded.
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