So, I’m a little behind the news blitz—okay way behind, but I recently began reading the controversial book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by political analysts John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. When it was first released it created a firestorm of controversy around the colorful behavior of key candidates in play during the 2008 historic presidential election. It is a great read giving incredible insight not only into the characters of the candidates, their wives and their political teams, but general laws of business.
Of course, what we learn from the book—and the election—is that the best campaigns are framed by a successful message—one that is well thought out, consistent, sincere, and relevant. The message shapes the brand and the brand is how the electorate identifies with a candidate. According to www.businessdictionary.com a brand is a “unique design, sign, symbol, word, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. Over time, this image becomes associated with a level of credibility, quality and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind.”
This definition obviously connects branding to a product, but in business (and politics) people have brands as well. Everyone does, whether they know it or not; whether they like it or not. How your brand is developed and managed makes all the difference in how you are perceived. Why is perception so important? In elections it determines who wins and loses. At the office it determines how you are judged at work. And it runs the gamut from situations like always being early or always running late; being a great contributor or having a disagreeable demeanor. Strong brands get rewarded with opportunities. Weak brands are overlooked, ignored, and eventually discarded.
While it is interesting to read how the candidates of the 2008 election struggled to shape and fortify their brands, nothing was more fascinating to me than how Hilary Clinton had virtually no control over her personal brand way before she even entered the race. Unfortunately, for Clinton she had to manage a professional image that was judged both publicly and by her colleagues in the Senate, where she was branded a “workhorse.”
“Clinton believed that success in the Senate required the sublimation of the ego (or a credible facsimile thereof),” the authors write. “And the advice she offered Obama based on that theory was clear and bullet-point concise: Keep your head down. Avoid the limelight. Get on the right committees. Go to hearings. Do your homework. Build up a substantive portfolio. And never forget the care and feeding of the people who sent you here.”
Keep your head down and avoid the limelight. It is absolutely the worst professional advice anyone could offer, but unfortunately that’s how most women function in corporate America: They work hard; they do their homework and hope that someone will notice so they can get the reward they deserve.
Men in business never think that way—Barack Obama certainly didn’t heed her advice. From the minute he hit the Senate, Obama focused on developing the right relationships, and once he decided to run for office, he courted a more influential and more extensive network. He had key mentors who offered critical advice about this new political culture to which he was now exposed and he routinely tested his speeches in a variety of venues. Obama created an exciting brand, one that he developed and cultivated – one his network willfully embraced and helped extend to their own networks. A workhorse just has no legs.
I always equated Hillary Clinton, one of the strongest and most successful and influential women in politics as one of the “boys.” Her tough as nails exterior, I dare argue, was very much part of her public brand. But like so many other gifted female professionals, she was solely focused on the job and not all the supporting elements that are so important to how the hard work is actually perceived. The only thing that is more important than the brand is how it is managed. You have to work twice as hard as your peers to be considered just as good, is what most women and minorities have been taught. It is true that the measurement by which women and minorities are judged is often more stringent, but what we’ve also learned is that only working hard and working smart yield completely different returns.
Sonia Alleyne is an editorial director of Black Enterprise.