Leadership Brand: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 28th, 2011 by bobmorris

Leadership Brand: Developing Customer-Focused Leaders to Drive Performance and Build Lasting Value
Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood
Harvard Business School Press (2007)

Note: I recently re-read several books that were published a while ago. Here is my review of Leadership Brand.

In the Preface, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood make this affirmation: “We believe that leaders matter, but leadership matters more. We have all experienced a gifted leader who engaged all of us — our hearts, minds, and feet. Dynamic leaders enlist us in a cause, and we willingly follow their counsel. But leadership exists when an organization produces more than one to two individual leaders. Leadership matters more because it is tied not to a person but to the process of building leaders.” By no means do Ulrich and Smallwood question the importance of individual leaders. On the contrary, they assert (and I agree) that one of the most important obligations of being a leader is to strengthen or at least sustain a process by which to identify, hire, develop, and then retain high-impact leaders at all levels and in all areas throughout her or his organization.

With regard to this book’s title, Ulrich and Smallwood offer another affirmation: “We believe that all organizations have a leadership brand, either explicitly crafted and deployed or implicitly perceived and randomly perpetuated…[Therefore] leadership brand is the identity of the leaders throughout an organization that bridges customer expectations and employee and organizational behavior.” I’ve noticed that in recent years, several of the same companies (e.g. Berkshire Hathaway, FedEx, GE, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Toyota Motor) appear on the annual lists of those Most Valuable as well as those Most Highly Admired. These exemplary companies all have high-impact leadership that consistently produces superior results. I’ve also noticed that the U.S. military services and their academies are also renowned for the high quality of their leadership development programs. However different these organizations are in most respects, they do share this in common: Each has devised a high-impact leadership program that is appropriate to their specific needs and objectives.

As Ulrich and Smallwood correctly point out, a brand combines an identity with a reputation among various constituencies. “Leadership brand is the identity of the firm in the mind of the customers, made real to employees because of customercentric leadership behaviors. In other words, leadership brand occurs when leaders’ knowledge, skills, and values focus employee behavior on the factors that target the issues that customers care about.” The challenge for any organization (whatever its size or nature) is to formulate a program ensuring that everyone in that organization embraces the values, gains the knowledge, and strengthens the skills needed to drive performance and build lasting value.

After briefly explaining the “what” in Chapters 1 & 2 (i.e. what leadership brand is and why it is important), Ulrich and Smallwood devote the remaining chapters to “how,” answering questions such as these:

What is a “brand statement”?
How to prepare one?
How to assess leaders against the brand?
How to invest in the leadership brand?
How to measure its ROI?
How to create and then increase awareness of it?

Credit Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood with providing in a single volume just about as much information and counsel as most organizations will need to devise and implement or strengthen a process by which to produce the high-impact leaders it needs. In my opinion, becoming a “leadership brand” is only one result of that process. Moreover, everyone should be involved both as a student and as a mentor. Exemplary companies are proud of their current, hard-earned reputation as a “leadership brand” while keeping in mind that the high quality of their leaders will continue only if they constantly nourish and strengthen the process by which they are developed.

For that reason, I strongly recommend that all decision-makers in a given organization read this book, then discuss it with other members of senior management. It would be a serious mistake to try to apply everything that Ulrich and Smallwood recommend but equally irresponsible to have no development process whatsoever. As they suggest when concluding their book, “the journey to leadership brand begins with the self.” Bon voyage!


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