“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Warren Buffett
These words of wisdom from Warren are worth their weight in gold. As leaders and business owners, our greatest intangible asset may well be our brand reputation. We all have a brand, regardless of whether we’ve intentionally taken the time to articulate it or put it in writing. Our brand is a composite of our behaviors and how those behaviors impact how others perceive us.
Brand will make or break a company or a leader. Show me a company or leader with an impeccable brand, and invariably I’ll show you staying power, loyalty and an unstoppable ability to grow and flourish due to brand equity.
To get to the heart of our leadership brand, we can ask three questions:
- How do others feel every time they experience us?
- What’s the real vs. desired overall impact of our leadership brand day after day?
- Longer term, what’s the legacy we want to leave with others after a key project, transition from a role or position, or an exit from the organization?
What is Your Leadership Brand Experience?
The experience both during and after interactions will either drive or destroy our brand. Think about the leaders in your world who leave you feeling energized, encouraged and multiplied. There’s a scientific reason we feel so darn good in their presence. Their overwhelming positivity feeds our emotional and mental health by elevating our oxytocin. This feel-good hormone increases our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others.
Conversely, consider the leaders who are unpredictable – like the Forest Gump analogy to a box of chocolates, “you never know what you’re going to get.” They’re hot. They’re cold. They’re usually negative or critical and maybe sprinkle in a few positives. They may be flighty and emotional to the point of causing others to conjure up use of the “D” word – DRAMA. This unsettling effect on us revs up our fight or flight production of the not-so-feel good hormone, cortisol. Cortisol has been proven to cause stress, anxiety, and a myriad of other physical and mental health concerns.
Top performing teams and leaders give each other more than 5 times the amount of positive communication versus negative. A study conducted by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada*, examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company. They learned for every 1 negative interaction, we need 5.6 positive interactions to keep our brand in a positive light. Anything less, and we’ve compromised it.
Because oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, the effects of any positives are less powerful and long-lasting than negatives. That’s why it takes more positive conversation and repeated interactions to overcome the chemical reactions of a negative one, according to Richard and Judith Glasser of The CreatingWE Institute (HBR June2014).
So, forget using the harm and charm routine. Out of the ordinary, “whack a mole” niceties that pop up such as “atta boys/girls”, thank you emails, or gift cards interspersed among mostly negative behaviors can even be insulting. In the mind of the receiver they may merely represent momentary, meaningless appreciation for putting up with fire and fury.
Whether things are going our way either professionally or personally is irrelevant in the context of how we make others feel. If we’re having a bad moment or day, it’s okay to vulnerably say:
- “I’m at a bad place right now and I don’t know how to manage it. I need your help.”
- “Now’s a tough time for me to focus on this. I want to give you my best self and undivided attention. Can we please come back to this?”
- Or even in hindsight acknowledge, “I didn’t handle that very well, will you forgive me?”
At the end of the day, what matters is the people who count on our leadership and what they can count on from us. Managing our brand reputation in consideration of how others experience us, our day to day impact, and the legacy we leave is always an ongoing, top-of- mind challenge.
Because it only takes 5 minutes, or in today’s technology timetable, a 5 second text, to ravage our reputation past the point of recovery.