How to look and feel like a leader online

6 ways to take care of your digital appearance

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I've said it before, and I'll say it again: In open organizations, leaders can emerge from anywhere.

In these organizations, people become leaders because of the contributions they make and the actions they inspire, not because of the titles they have. In fact, those leaders—what I (and others) call open leaders—might never receive an "official" leadership designation. But make no mistake: the power and influence they wield is more real than any title on a business card.

As they accrue experience, influence, and authority, these leaders today have the unprecedented ability to craft the version of leaders they desire to be, using the powerful digital tools at their disposal. Leadership isn't a quality someone just switches on when walking into the office. Someone's mark as an open leader is a unique leadership brand. We carry it with us everywhere, especially through our digital experiences.

Social media tools can act as powerful catalysts for defining, developing, extending, and voicing leadership identities in ways that transcend traditional organizational boundaries and hierarchies. But using these these tools effectively in today's "sharing environment" takes practice, discipline, and reflection. Nevertheless, we not only have the freedom and right to use these new means of engaging, but, in my view, we also have an obligation and imperative to do so—regardless of title, position, or rank.

That said, I want to share with you some insights I've gleaned along the way, so that you too can be well on your way to building your own online leadership brand.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

Online brands are 'always on'

I mentioned that leadership isn't something we can turn on and off at will. That's because it's a set of characteristics that others attribute to us more so than it is a set of skills. Those characteristics are core to our individual brands. And our brands are the culmination of what others think and feel about us. They define it. We don't. We can only shape it. Our brand is always active, even when we're not. When we're taking a vacation, driving home from the office, or even sleeping, it's out there for all to see.

Nowhere is this more evident than digital media. The bots and algorithms that coexist with us online are constantly pushing our content (the links, updates, messages, and check-ins we share) in directions we might never have anticipated, at times we don't dictate—to people we may have never even met, all of whom are forming impressions of us. The question today is not "Do you want to have a brand online?" Answering that question is easy: You already do, whether you want one or not! The real question is: What are you doing to manage your always-on brand in a way that's beneficial to you, that sets you apart, and that encourages others who look to you for guidance?

The digital tools at our disposal (even your organization's internal blogs, intranets, internal chat groups) allow us to blur boundaries that, historically, we've had to establish between our personal and professional selves. They allow us to transcend one-dimensional "assigned" leadership roles and display the many faces that are already part of our complex lives and identities: parent, partner, friend, spouse, colleague, thought leader, and more. And by doing this, they help us cultivate what Charlene Li calls the single most important characteristic of open leadership: authenticity. While some people deride social media as places where people indulge in trivialities and superficialities—even deceptions—I tend to think about those in a completely different way: as places that allow us unprecedented potential for portraying our true selves.

The trick, however, is doing this consistently, effectively, and without wasting time during your busy day.

6 steps

As you think of using digital and social media to find your voice and develop a unique leadership brand, I recommend experimenting with some of the following strategies. Not all of them may be comfortable or appealing to you, so try the ones that seem to best fit the brand you wish to be.

1. Perform a self-inventory. Before you begin, ask yourself a few important questions: What motivates you? What do you stand for? What are you curious about? Identify a few keywords that will guide your voice. For example, I wish to stand for things like: authenticity, integrity, advocating for people and possibilities, driving change, thinking of brands as "souls," open leadership, customer-centric experiences, family at the core, women in leadership and in technology, and strategic thinking. Most everything I do and say online emanates from and reflects one of these interests and values.

2. Flip the script. Think not only about how you would describe yourself, but how you want others to do so, too. What do you hope other people say when asked to describe you? Even better: What would you want people to say at your retirement dinner? Don't limit yourself to passions, ideals, and goals specific to your current organization or job title. Being an open leader means thinking beyond organizational boundaries. Jobs come and go, but leadership brands don't. They're much more durable, more universal.

3. Draft a personal brand statement. Now that you've identified some of the key words and phrases that characterize your brand, you can craft a personal brand statement, a single sentence that encapsulates who you are, what you do, and why you do it. Astrid Baumgardner of the Yale School of Music has four simple exercises that can help you develop your brand statement in minutes. She recommends asking yourself things like: "If the world were a perfect place, what work would you be doing?" You don't even need to share your statement with anyone! But it can definitely help guide you as you consider how and where you spend your energy online.

4. Stay true to your multi-faceted values. Now you're ready to begin listening and participating. Since you've identified the platforms featuring the type of conversations that interest you most, you can begin interacting with others in ways that reflect your personal leadership brand. Your presence online must be as multi-faceted as you are if it's going to be authentic. Remain true to the values you identified in your self-assessment. I'll be the first to admit: This isn't always easy! Remaining true to my core values was intense work for me, as over the years I found myself in positions that might have pushed me to be someone I'm not. In some ways, changing my leadership brand to fit one of the environments in which I found myself would have been the easier route (or at least the one with the least amount of friction!). But I'm glad I didn't, because now I lead strategy and corporate marketing in a place that values open leadership—and I've been able to hone those skills after years of never abandoning them.

5. Make it a habit. How much time do you spend getting ready in the morning before you physically see anyone? Thirty minutes? An hour? Do you spend just as much time each day tending to your digital self—the version of you with whom people can interact at all hours of the day? I recommend spending at least 30 minutes every day reading, following, interacting, and really listening on the platforms you've joined. I tend to do this first thing in the morning. Force yourself to do it for a month, and I bet you'll find that it will become a habit. Get involved, and always remember that you're privy to a degree of power and possibility that other leaders throughout history have never been able to enjoy (I often wonder what leaders I most admire—like Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc—would have done with social media!). Articulating your brand and the values that underpin it is a daily task.

6. Find north stars. This final point is exceedingly important. What leaders inspire you? Follow them. Find out what makes them tick. Learn from them. Reach out to them for guidance and advice. Make them your north stars. After all, they're most likely using social media the same way you are: to connect with others who share their values, inspire them, teach them, and learn from them. You'd be flattered if someone who admired you reached out to tell you so. Think about how others will feel when you do the same to them.

Still not convinced?

Spend five minutes thinking about your interactions with the coaches, leaders, and mentors that have really cared about you. How did those relationships make you feel? What advice do you remember most? Do your interactions with people—even the people you personally lead, mentor or coach—feel that same way?

Thinking about how you and others feel is actually the key to successfully building your leadership brand. Maya Angelou famously noted, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Those feelings you inspire and instill in others are your leadership brand, something you've imparted to others whose lives you've impacted, even in some small way. If you do nothing else, consider how you want to make people feel, and determine at least one concrete step you can take to ensure people are feeling that way when they join you on your journey to becoming a great open leader.

Yes, using these new tools takes time, practice, and a good deal of patience. But the more open we become—the more we speak up for the things we value, both inside and outside organizational boundaries—the stronger our voices and impact become.

About the author

Jackie Yeaney - Chief Marketing Officer at Ellucian