As we've described before, we have a unique organizational model here at Red Hat in that we've combined the more traditional Human Resources and Corporate Marketing functions into a single department that we call People & Brand. Thanks to this structure, we are able to explore the places where our brand intersects with many different elements of our culture and associate programming, such as recruiting, interviewing, orientation, on-boarding, and training & development (among other things).
Recently, my colleague Jan Smith (who oversees the Leadership College of our internal training organization, Red Hat University) asked me to collaborate with her in developing Red Hat's leadership brand. At first not quite sure what she was getting at, I asked Jan to help me understand what she meant by the term. She pointed me to a classic HBR article entitled “Building a Leadership Brand”, in which authors Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood examine the leadership philosophies and training approaches of such “leader feeder” firms as Disney, Pepsi, Goldman Sachs, and Boeing. From the article:
These companies go beyond standard-issue leader training, doing something they themselves are not even necessarily aware of. Instead of merely strengthening the abilities of individual leaders, these companies focus on building a more general leadership capability. Specifically, they build what we call a leadership brand.
I am sure that many of you reading this article have attended or been through some type of leadership development program or activity. I have, and if your experiences are anything like mine, they're very similar from training course to training course, and from company to company. Most focus on the basics of leadership – things like strategic thinking, the ability to execute, one's powers of influence, visionary thinking, an effectiveness in motivating others, managing key talent, and demonstrating a healthy balance between IQ and EQ. All fundamentals of leadership, and all important to be sure.
But seldom does a training curriculum take branding into account. Remember, great brands are built on a foundation of differentiation versus their competition – something that makes them different, relevant, and admired. Shouldn't those brands' leaders also strive to be differentiated from their counterparts at other companies? Ulrich and Smallwood make a compelling case for companies to seek out that differentiator and, more importantly, to create the linkage between a brand's points of differentiation and the behaviors for which that brand's leaders should be known.
To that end, they articulate the following definition of a leadership brand:
Leadership brand is a reputation for developing exceptional managers with a distinct set of talents that are uniquely geared to fulfill customers' and investors' expectations. A company with a leadership brand inspires faith that employees and managers will consistently make good on the firm's promises.
Think about the brands you might interact with on any given day. Do you shop at Wal-Mart? Even if you don't, I am sure you would agree that the Wal-Mart brand is best known for offering everyday low prices. Leaders at Wal-Mart are finely attuned to this brand differentiator, and they behave accordingly. They know how to negotiate with suppliers, manage costs, and eliminate waste to keep their prices low for their customers. Trust me, I marketed and sold snack food items to Wal-Mart and Sam's Club buyers when I was with a previous employer. They don't just talk the talk, they also walk the walk ... and they are very good at what they do.
In a similar way, leaders at Nordstrom are known for their excellence in service delivery, those at Procter & Gamble have a laser-like focus on customer research and insights, as well as spotting emerging social trends, and McKinsey's leaders are sharp, well-educated professionals who are adept at applying the latest management skills and techniques to help solve their clients' problems. You can see that the leaders of each of these companies are developed in a way to align them with the core values and attributes of their employer's brand, above and beyond their mastery of the fundamentals.
So let's get back to Jan and me here at Red Hat, as we try to make progress in defining our leadership brand. Clearly, we are also committed to developing leadership fundamentals in our people. But what makes a Red Hat leader different? We've taken to calling this the “Red Hat multiplier”; that is, what are the differentiators of our brand that can be translated into real and demonstrable leadership traits, characteristics, and behaviors?
One of our most defining brand characteristics is, of course, that we are an open source company. For that reason, we are having active conversations about how the hallmarks of the open source way – transparency, meritocracy, and “release early, release often” methodologies, among others – should be reflected in the behaviors of our leaders. Furthermore, we are exploring how those defining characteristics can be measured, developed, and even incented.
We're curious to hear about your experiences. Have you, too, experienced “cookie-cutter” leadership training? What's your organization's leadership multiplier – that is, the points of differentiation that make your leaders stand apart from your competitors'?
Source: “Building a Leadership Brand”, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007.