How Women Leaders Discover Their Own, Powerful Leadership Brand

Guest post By Suzanne Bates
Author of Discover Your CEO Brand: Secrets to Embracing and Maximizing Your Unique Value as a Leader

Most of us fully appreciate the importance of a brand to a luxury hotel chain like Ritz Carlton, an online service like Zappos Shoes, or a new product like the IPad. But what do people mean when they talk about personal brands? And, why as a women in business, do you need a brand, anyway? 

In essence, a brand is a thought (accompanied by a feeling) that lives in the mind of another person. Your brand is the shorthand way people think about you. In marketing, there’s a saying -“a brand is more than a word; it’s the beginning of a conversation.” The question you have to ask, as a hard-working woman in business, is what’s the conversation people are having about you?

Most women I know need to invest more in building their brands. During a decade as the CEO of an executive coaching firm that has clients in world-class companies, I’ve learned that women just don’t do enough to make themselves known. Women need to make a name in business. If you are successful, have a busy life, and are juggling many priorities, you may have let that slide. Perhaps you undervalued the importance of building an industry-wide reputation. Perhaps like many women, you have now realized that hard work and loyalty alone will not get you to the top. You appreciate that strengthening your reputation would help - you’re just not sure what works. 

To begin, think about women leaders who are brand names. You can’t help but notice they have at least one thing in common – a well-understood brand that burnished their reputations. In short, their name stands for something. And often that brand defines the very DNA of the organizations they lead.

Women with Powerful, Personal Brands

Anne Mulcahy’s passion for the people and culture of Xerox Corporation rescued the once-great American brand from near extinction and restored it to profitability. Since Mulcahy grew up in the company, part of her brand was an unwavering belief in the Xerox values – which when communicated, ignited new energy and made people at Xerox believe in themselves. 

Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic, figure-hugging wrap dress, a 70’s sensation, came roaring back to fashion in the 2000’s, a testament not just to the timelessness of her creativity but also the way she sees women. In her early years she was a jet-setting model and former princess; today she celebrates the beauty and strength of women. Fearless about looking older, eschewing Botox, her brand today is about natural confidence, at any age.

Mary Kay Ash launched her own cosmetic company after she was passed over for promotion in the company for which she worked, even though she was the highest seller there. Her success came from giving great sales incentives to consultants who earned them by being top sellers. She believed in giving women the opportunity to succeed, and that helped her build an empire.

What Women with Strong Brands Can Teach Us

Those are all compelling examples; however, you may be wondering what these women can teach you about building your own brand. The answer is – a lot! They had the courage to stop, take a look at who they were, and understand it, and then the confidence to communicate that image to the world. You can follow the same blueprint for success, by first acknowledging the importance of building your own brand. 

Why is it important to know your own brand, and communicate it to all of your important audiences?

If you work for a company, when the executives of your organization go looking for the leaders of tomorrow, they are seeking not just women who are highly competent, but those who are influential. They will promote exceptional leaders who have accomplished something, brought people together around a common goal and inspired their success. 

If you are CEO, or entrepreneur, when your clients, employees, vendors, board, stakeholders or investors think about you, they want to see not only a competent business person, but an authentic leader who has a powerful vision. They want to hear and see what you stand for, how you are taking your company to the next level, and what values are guiding your success. 

Who Are YOU?

Your brand, or reputation, is at the most fundamental level, answers the question “Who are you?” And when people understand this, and believe in you, you have influence in any arena. How do you discover your brand? By analyzing the lessons of your life and career! 

Think back on your experiences; the good, bad and ugly. Those events, all those ups and downs represent character-building moments that taught you important lessons. When we work with executive and professional women, whether in our executive coaching programs, our boot camps, or in strategic communications projects for their companies, we continually go back to this treasure chest of experiences. We get leaders to tell us the stories, and then communicate who they are to all their important audiences.

When people know your story they come to trust you and believe in you; this opens the door to opportunities you never imagined. Your brand values, well-communicated, have that much impact. While your brand may seem like an intangible asset, the effect of communicating who you are is enormous. 

Personality, Presence, and Brand

What are the elements of a strong, leader brand? Is personality important? Sure, it’s one aspect of who you are. But it isn’t the sum of your brand. You may be analytical, smart, outgoing, engaging or a good listener, and these are good qualities, but not a brand. Likewise, the outer you – often referred to as executive presence, from wardrobe and grooming to body language, all matter. Your energy and a healthy lifestyle count, but they also are just elements of your brand; a reflection of the inner you. 

So Who Are You?

The core of your brand is your character; the values that define you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and a reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Your brand, or character, is what is authentic about you. Your skill in communicating casts the shadow that becomes your reputation.

The first step to discovering your brand is to embrace the idea that you have a brand, that it has power, and that you can harness it to accelerate your career. Then, you can share these values and lessons to stand out as a leader, attract people to you, win trust, influence decisions, align your team and drive forward with your vision.

Women, especially, must take care do this. It is vital to become known. You are competing with men who are out there, unafraid to let people know who they are. It is a generalization, and there are exceptions, however many women still today tend to work hard and hope someone will notice. Going on this journey is an act of self-love and an investment in your dreams. 

As a woman, you’ve probably heard the advice that you should “toot your own horn,” or “tell people about your accomplishments.” I detest this advice. It’s uncomfortable, for a good reason. Nobody you like likes to brag. And nobody likes a bragger. I’m suggesting something very different – telling a story that shares a value. This still gives you that swagger and communicates who you are, but it doesn’t make you seem arrogant. Great leaders balance confidence and humility, and your stories must do the same. 

The approach to finding these stories is to understand the lessons of your life and share those lessons with others. These lessons are a way of getting at the values that are essential to defining who you are as a person and a leader. Paint a picture of what matters most to you and your organization. As you collect these stories they become the anthology of your leadership and part of your legacy. In our Boot Camps, Discover Your Brand retreats, and Storytelling for Leaders workshops we help women do this – find the stories and make concise, powerful, and relevant points to their audiences.

7 Strategies for Successfully Building Your Brand

What can you do? Here are 7 strategies for success.

1. Identify a story from your life and career that was pivotal; a success, failure, challenge or obstacle. Have a friend talk you through the story. What happened and what did you learn about yourself? Don’t make yourself the “hero” but rather look for the lesson that might be relevant to others. 

2. Share the story with your team, a mentor, or important audience; be sure again to highlight not how fabulous you are, but rather the value that you discovered which is important to leadership.

3. Make yourself visible by speaking more often at your company. Use stories as the primary vehicle. Rather than just giving an update on a project, selling your service or giving a presentation on your area of expertise, share how you know what you know; be candid about what’s happened, what you’ve learned and how those lessons made you, your team or company successful. This is a great way to build your brand and your company brand. 

4. Get to know people who share your values. Look around inside and outside your organization at the people who walk their talk, who demonstrate the values that resonate for you. Hang around with leaders who motivate, inspire and stand for something. These can be mentors, or colleagues, in which case, you can help each other.

5. Write articles for industry publications or blogs and websites that highlight not only what you know, but how you lead, why it works, and how others can also be successful. A bylined article in a trade or business publication, a blog, or guest blog, is one of the most powerful ways to build your brand. 

6. Speak at industry events and conferences to raise your profile and again talk not just about products and services, but a way of doing things that highlights what you believe in. Share the stories that highlight the “you”- don’t be afraid to bring yourself out on the platform, to really connect with people in an authentic way.

7. Become a leader in your industry by joining professional organizations, being on the boards, serving on committees, even becoming president. Be sure that the organizations to which you lend your name are aligned with the brand values that are important to you – your name associated with a great organization is a phenomenal brand builder.

Recently, I posted a personal story in my blog, about a challenge I faced in when I was about to change careers. I hadn’t lost my job, but I’d lost my mojo, and I shared the truth about how I found it again. This article received an enormous response, such heartfelt messages. Even though I hear from readers every week, it cemented for me the power of sharing personal stories with brand lessons. To read that article and look at an example of how you to tell stories, go to and look for the article titled, “A Personal Truth.”

If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to think about your brand, and communicate your brand. People need to know about you. The “who you are” and the “who knows you” will be a deciding factor in your success.