Personal branding for vice-chancellors

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Laura du Plessis
Laura du Plessis

In this guest post based on her CIPR Professional PR Diploma thought leadership assignment, Laura du Plessis argues for better use of personal branding by university vice chancellors. 

Making the case for universities

The reputation of UK universities has taken something of a battering over the past two years. The sector appeared to be vulnerable to political attacks from both the left and the right, beset by internal strife and mounting external regulation, pinched by market and funding pressures. Criticism of senior leadership pay and decision-making portrays university leaders as out of touch at best, border-line corrupt fat cats at worst. In this maelstrom, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has declared that attacks on universities are “not a blip”; they are the new normal.

Where university leaders have sought to make the case for higher education, this has often exacerbated poor perceptions. For example, one Vice-Chancellor attracted ridicule when they sought to clarify that their £350k pay was low when compared to salaries of footballers and bankers. Another ended up resigning after they attempted to turn the tide of negative opinion about student experience by saying their institution had allowed academics “to get away with not teaching for decades”.  Own goals, maybe?

These examples, whilst limited, show that university leaders are not providing a more compelling narrative about the role of universities, or giving solutions through persuasive thought-leadership, or actively engaging with their audiences. No doubt they are well-intentioned, but in execution, they actually show university leaders to be disconnected at best. At worst – they are suffering from the same ‘tin ear’ the Chancellor was accused of having this time last year – seemingly unaware of how they sound, and distracting with tone and messages at the very time they need to engage audiences positively on difficult topics.

Leadership challenge

It is interesting to reflect on how university leaders seek to position themselves in this context. What insight can we gain from a study of leadership personal branding that could usefully be applied to how university leaders position themselves? And, how could the principles of personal brand management be pursued by VCs to better position themselves and, by extension, to start to shift the argument on UK universities?

Vice-Chancellors are not CEOs in the conventional sense of the title – they are not in commercially-driven organisations, and without complete executive power (as recent events at Oxford University demonstrated, the academic congregation could hold leadership to account and even over-rule their decisions). However, VCs are leaders nonetheless – accountable for large, complex businesses with thousands of staff and still more customers (students), with significantly-sized portfolios, estates, intellectual property, and multi-million pound turnovers.  

So, I explore the notion of leadership brand – or CEO personal brand, and I set out how personal brand could be used effectively by leaders within higher education.

I do this using three key dimensions of personal brand: storytelling, thought-leadership and building relationships. I argue that the benefits of enhancing VCs’ personal brand could have a positive impact on how they are perceived and on how they operate – through the claiming of a space to speak and be heard, through the networks this develops and through the self-reflection personal brand management facilitates. And I suggest how this may begin to benefit the sector overall through shifting the narrative on higher education.

What do we mean by ‘personal brand’?

The concept of building a personal brand dates back decades: in 1997, Fast Company published an article entitled “The brand called you” – popularising the concept by arguing that it wasn’t just celebrities who needed to carefully craft the image they project. The parallel growth of social media and the “gig economy” – where digital profiles are a crucial part of grabbing work opportunities, brought further prominence to personal brand management – where inviting audiences and customers to consider you as an asset, and with that a promise of performance and value, became an overt invitation for business.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO of global marketing firm Mavens and Moguls, warns that “if you do not define your personal brand, others will do it for you”. When considered in the context of universities, this is perhaps one of the most critical elements of what is happening currently: negative perceptions of the sector are being created by the fact that others – press, government, sector regulators, customers (current and prospective students) rather than leaders in the sector itself, are articulating the purpose and values of universities.

Impact of a positive CEO personal brand

Businesses no longer operate solely on the high street or through planned advertising, because their customers can connect to and commentate on the business at times and through means of their choosing – impacting reputation in both positive and negative ways.  

Business leaders – whether from a small or large organisation – know that personal brand, personifying what their organisation stands for, is a critical part of building a strong brand reputation and the development of positive stakeholder perceptions of their company. This becomes a form of market-appropriate response to an increasingly complex operating and communications environment. There is a cost-based argument as well: where organisations (and universities?) could spend a fortune on PR, social media gives opportunity for people to promote themselves as brands in a relatively cheap, efficient and direct way.

We can see the positive impact of CEO brand in a number of ways. When you think of your favourite organisation, it’s likely that your interest stems in part from what you feel about the people who run them. Apple is intrinsically linked to the creative vision of Steve Jobs. Virgin to the can-do attitude of Richard Branson. Tesla to Elon Musk’s desire to revolutionise travel.

CEOs are the chief brand ambassadors for their organisations – impacting sales, trust and recruitment and retention.

The Fombrun reputation quotient study that surveys the public’s awareness of companies who either excel or falter in society, lists leadership as one of the six key dimensions of corporate reputation (for good or bad reasons). As Marc Fetscherin says in his book on CEO branding, “Like movie stars who serve as a signal about the expected quality of a forthcoming movie, Chief Executive Officers serve as a signal to stakeholders about expected company performance”.  

Having considered the reasons for, and value of, using leadership brand to enhance an organisation’s credentials, let’s look at three key principles of personal brand in turn to understand how these could be used effectively by University leaders: storytelling, thought-leadership and building relationships.  

Personal brand as storytelling

Looking first at how personal brand creates a story, Dorie Clark, brand expert and adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, talks about developing a narrative to give an underpinning consistency to all your messaging that allows you to develop your career and reputation with genuineness.  Politicians are most pilloried for obvious, poll-driven personal changes that simply don’t ring true – for example Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign that unsuccessfully attempted to re-profile him from eco-wonk to a crusader for the people. Giving a unifying narrative helps to join the dots from the past to the present and future, and to lend authenticity – critical in higher education to re-setting the perception of university leaders as complacent or remote.  

Storytelling also enables us to make the strange familiar. As Stephen Denning writes, narratives are a way of translating the complex, technical and intangible to address the organisational challenges that today’s leaders face.  

Think back to the 2016 US elections: amidst public concern about rising immigration levels, Hillary Clinton talked about the legislative policies she would create. Donald Trump said he’d build a wall. The narrative device of telling a story is far more persuasive in enabling people to make sense of what you’re doing.  

Universities have long fallen back on rhetoric however – the Kantian view of the university as the place where reason and thinking could be deployed with freedom, or Newman’s training “which gives man a clear conscious views of his own opinions and judgements”. This existential argument is still being used now: in the 2017 Office for Students’ consultation, Michael Barber argued that better market regulation of universities would protect “the joy and value of knowledge pursued for its own sake”.  

In crafting an authentic story about higher education, university leaders will not just be able to translate the rhetoric of the mission of universities, but also make accessible the work of universities outside the lab, faculty or academia, and create meaning for the people they are trying to engage.

Personal brand as thought leadership

The second important dimension of personal brand is thought leadership. Anna Gong, listed in the 2017 LinkedIn CEO Power Profile, says that she actively offers relevant insights and curates content for her social media audiences in order to build brand credibility. In his book The Social Media Manifesto, Jed Hallam describes how messages travel in networks with various players having the opportunity to change and adapt meaning and interpretation.  This last part is critical in building thought leadership into CEO personal brand – being able to influence how news, events and trends are received by the people with whom you most want to engage – creating results for your brand and organisation through creating distinctiveness, building following, and strengthening reputation.

Interestingly perhaps, VCs have almost universally built their careers on sharing their subject expertise in such a compelling way that they secure competitive research funding and international peer recognition – progressing them through the ranks of universities.

Whilst academic expertise is no longer necessarily what counts once they step into leadership roles, they are well-placed to use thought leadership skills to now propose solutions to the sector’s current challenges – from accountability for senior pay and remuneration to exploring different and transparent governance models, exploring new ways to tackle social stratification, and focusing on the public impact of universities. Rather like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, they could show their thinking and ideas, reflecting back positively on the reputation of the institutions they represent through building their own influence and opinion.

Personal brand in building relationships

The third key dimension of personal brand is building relationships. In 2012, satirical online newspaper the Onion mocked the trend of personal brand with a story describing a pathetic local web developer who sees his worthless daily blogs and endless Facebook status updates as an extension of his brand name. The point is made that no one cares about messages and perfect image; it is the personal that counts. One report by BRANDfog reported that 75% of those surveyed perceive that perception of executive leadership is improved by participation on social media. Whether online or otherwise, certainly, the very act of participation enables CEOs to forge connections and networks. This has particular merit within organisations, where building relationships with employees (and students, perhaps?) enables a leader to build trust, which in turn leads to the buy-in of the internal community, and enhances the organisation’s resilience and advocacy.

Where university leaders build personal relationships with their internal community and external stakeholders, and develop trust and authenticity, they can also use the two-way dialogue they facilitate as an opportunity to listen and learn.

This self-reflection would enable them to develop cultural understanding of the communities outside the immediate world of higher education who might struggle to perceive universities in a positive light and, further, to understand why there are questions about the moral compass and ethics of the sector. In effect, building relationships where they are listening to their communities and customers creates space to hear, and be heard.

Shifting the conversation

We have seen how and why personal brand and CEO brand matter, and how university leaders could adopt key principles of storytelling, thought leadership and relationship building in personal brand management to effectively develop their own positions.

What is the value to the higher education sector of VCs doing this? Writing for, Karen Tiber Leland, President of Sterling Marketing Group, says that the smartest CEOs know that establishing a CEO brand is a critical way to “plant your flag and say I’m here and ready to go.” Put simply, therefore, this creates opportunity for university leaders. The impact is two-fold.

Firstly, it means VCs get their personal reputation in order to benefit the sector’s reputation – ensuring audiences are not distracted by tone or messages, but consciously thinking about the story of higher education, intellectual and practical solutions to the issues the sector faces, and genuine engagement with the people involved. Secondly, it enables VCs to begin to take control of the debate on universities.

The value here is this: it doesn’t halt the debate, but it begins to shift it to a genuine, open, respectful conversation about how, why, and in what ways universities add value to society, and what they need to do to continue to do this for the future.

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