You are the CEO of you, American management guru Tom Peters wrote in 1997.
He meant that a leader’s brand – how they carry and project themselves – is important. Branding is no longer just for corporations, he argued, but a crucial part of how a leader progresses through their career.
Peters was writing 15 years ago. And while psychologists have long known physical appearance is a large part of how we judge people, Peter’s insight is more relevant today than he could have known at the time.
The past 15 years have seen a decline in corporate loyalty. Leaders get sacked. Or they choose to move on themselves. The average CEO tenure at ASX100 companies is now less than four years, according to recent research.
This is why personal brand has become so important. People shift between jobs more and more. This has made personal branding more of a leadership issue.
Image consultant and executive coach Jon Michail has been in his line of work for more than 20 years. This increased stress on personal marketing and brand management drives his business.
The former fashion designer for Christian Dior integrates style consulting with his broader coaching offering. He fell into his work “by accident”.
“I discovered along the way that I was more interested in people than the actual product,” he says.
In 1989, he founded Image Group International, which he still heads. His clients are mostly executives, many of them from Australia’s largest companies, including Qantas, Westpac, Myer and Hewlett Packard. A lot of them are women.
“The typical client would be someone going for a promotion, or renegotiating their current position,” he says. “Our clients want to be perceived as a better leader… Their personal brand and image plays a big part of that.”
Michail describes a client he had recently. “He was in the IT business, and wanted coaching to improve his assertiveness and confidence. He didn’t realise that his visual presentation was behind a lot of his confidence issues.”
“He needed something simple like a new haircut, a polish, to get rid of his facial hair. We worked on letting him keep his funky look while looking professional. So the next time he does a pitch, he’ll come across better.”
Michail says talent is overrated anyway. “In a very competitive marketplace, your talent isn’t going to be that much different from that of everyone else on the line,” he says. “So it becomes a matter of what you do to differentiate yourself.”
Michail’s line of work is controversial. Many question whether a preoccupation with superficial appearance is a healthy development.
It doesn’t help that for women, looking their best is often more expensive and time-consuming. A recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald criticised an unnamed investment banking firm that held a training seminar to teach women how to dress in the workplace. “While the men went about ‘business as usual’, the women traders were pulled aside, sat down and told how to dress, what shoes to wear and what body type each woman had,” writes social commentator and writer Nina Funnell. She quotes feminist commentator Clementine Ford saying, “a women’s only aesthetic responsibility in a professional workplace is to look professional”.
Michail is familiar with the criticisms, and doesn’t skip a beat in responding.
“I’m in the real world helping human beings grow professionally and personally. We do whatever it takes to help people grow.”
Leaders who rise to the top realise they need to be savvy to get people to listen. This includes, he claims, many of those who criticise his industry the most.
“Recently, I dealt with a leading commentator from the media who says things on the track you’ve suggested. That’s what she talks about.”
“But privately, in my session, she wanted to know every possible way she could build her brand. And then she goes out and says how all of this stuff is crap.”
Michail sees himself as an educator, teaching corporate Australia what it can’t learn in an MBA course.
“Business people know what the real world’s all about. They know that basically the whole package has to be right to get the maximum value of return. It’s no different to how corporations brand products. Human beings are no different… and if you don’t make a point of selling yourself, you won’t sell.”
Michail nominated some of the Australians he thought had strong personal brands. His list included:
- Gail Kelly
- Frank Lowy
- James Strong
- Richard Branson
- Quentin Bryce
- Simon McKeon
- Andrew Demetriou
- Mike Smith