Time to tune up your personal brand

June 7, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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When Rodney Dangerfield anxiously wiped his brow with a hanky and said, "I'm dying up here" during his stand-up routine, people laughed and that was good — because that was his job. But when an executive standing at the podium or seated at the board room table is truly DOA, it's not funny — and eventually, he or she could lose that job.

Everyone has a "personal brand" that comes across in face-to-face communication with others, but some work better than others. Susan Hodgkinson, principal of The Personal Brand Co., has a reputation for knowing how to repair or tune up a "personal brand." She will share tips June 16 at the Inforum event at the Western Michigan University Conference Center in downtown Grand Rapids.

Hodgkinson, a world-class triathlete who lives in Massachusetts with her family, founded The Personal Brand Co. in 1994, after a 10-year career in the financial industry. She is an executive leadership development expert, award-winning executive coach and a professional speaker who has recently been featured in The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, Essence Magazine, The Boston Globe, Fox News and other major media. She is also the author of "The Leader's Edge: Using Personal Branding to Drive Performance and Profit."

According to Inforum, a professional women's alliance, Hodgkinson will reveal "the secrets to strong personal presence for women executives," but Hodgkinson indicated to the Business Journal that "this whole notion of having a strong personal presence has become very important" to anyone expected to be a leader, regardless of gender.

She said she has seen a recent surge in interest by companies contacting her for help in developing their executives' "personal presence."

"Sometimes they call it ‘stature presence,’ or ‘command skills,’" said Hodgkinson. "What we are beginning to see is, (a lack of it has) become a career de-railer."

She said her expertise is helping otherwise intelligent people who are "bumping up against this place where they are ineffective, especially in front of senior leadership in the organization."

Hodgkinson said a weakness in an executive's personal presence can show up in a couple of ways. One way is "no presence”: The individual has a flat style of communication, talks in a monotone and is utterly lacking in personal energy. Part of a strong presence is personality, Hodgkinson said. “You have to have some charisma."

Many people will insist that they don't have charisma, she said, but that isn't necessarily true.

"If you have a passion around your topic, you have conviction. That’s the first building block of having strong presence. If you have any measure of strong passion for what you're talking about, it’s very hard to come across as flat."

Maintaining an effective personal presence requires courage and confidence. Hodgkinson said sometimes an individual will "walk through this weird door and move from being sort of appropriately casual but professional in their style to stiff and sort of over-produced, over-rehearsed, rigid in their form — and it makes other people in the room very uncomfortable."

Content of the communication is a major issue. When talking to senior management, "to present effectively, you’ve got to do it from the big picture, not from the weeds," said Hodgkinson.

Talking about lower-level details "is a showstopper at the top of the house," she added. "You have to have prepared," she said, but added that one should not prepare by "trying to make perfection out of your details."

She said a total lack of any preparation means "you are apt to fall back on what you know" — which are the details senior management probably is not interested in.

Proper preparation, said Hodgkinson, is knowing your audience in advance, having a thorough understanding of their concerns and distractions and the issues they are focused on. Senior management is focused on the issues affecting the organization and industry, not the daily details being dealt with within a business unit, she said.

"You have to be thinking at the enterprise level," she said.

Executives in the life sciences/biotech industries, in particular, face the challenge of working with "an extraordinary level of details, very complex information," then meeting with top management where the focus is on how the business is performing.

"They are actually a group of people with whom I do a fair amount of work on this very topic," she said.

The economic situation has apparently added lately to the urgency of effective personal branding, according to Hodgkinson, because many companies have had to reduce head count.

"All of a sudden, everyone has more scope to their job because there are fewer people," said Hodgkinson. That expanded scope often means an individual who previously had little or no contact with upper management now does.

"So there are moments when a boss or manager has to make a decision: 'How will this person reflect on me to the senior team?' It’s a very significant issue right now. To that manager, every single day, it had better look good," she said.

In other words, an individual who was never required to have a strong personal brand in the past, may now find it a critical issue in their job security.

"If you're good at it but somebody on your team isn’t, and they are being called upon to present, it reflects on you. And that's an issue for you, then."

Coaching employees on development of their personal presence is very difficult for some, because many people find it difficult to coach on a personal level. “That’s why our firm is getting the phone calls," she said.

Hodgkinson's presentation will run from 5-7:30 p.m. June 16. Cost of attendance is $50 for Inforum members and $70 for nonmembers. To register, go to www.inforummichigan.org, or call (616) 336-5506.

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