James Henderson

Self-promoter or media shy? How to build an executive personal brand

For such a high-profile industry commanding widespread interest and attention, the technology sector has a damaging habit of producing extreme executive personas.

Those self-promoters and ego maniacs in hot pursuit of LinkedIn followers and likes, polluting the feed with surface-level ‘trending’ nonsense on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis.

And the media shy reluctant folk, those untraceable online and living under a rock – sorry, ‘operating under the radar’ as a ‘best kept secret’.

Polar opposites on paper but almost equal in reality. Both groups are high-powered executives – founders, CEOs, managing directors etc – and both have spectacularly bad personal branding.

“The shameless self promoters will always have more reach and awareness but very little depth, and in business, depth matters,” advised Ash Jones, Founder of Great Influence. “If you’re trying to be a fashion influencer it doesn’t but if you’re trying to be a business influencer, depth really matters.”

Ash Jones (Great Influence)

For Jones – who runs a UK-based talent agency dedicated to building the profiles and careers of entrepreneurs, founders and business leaders – the difference between a strong personal brand and masses of followers is as stark as ever before.

“In the last 10 years of social media, having ‘followers’ has never had a lower value than it does today,” he said. “Followers are easy to build in 2023. You can ‘hack’ your way to growth.

“The ego maniacs will build audiences of low quality value because high level audiences either see through it or they don’t have anything of substance to say to attract a valuable audience.”

On the opposite end of the persona spectrum, the media shy executives quietly operate without fanfare – cynical of industry noise makers and resistant to any attempts at generating publicity.

“These people are the ones that are missing the biggest opportunity by far,” Jones outlined. “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it actually make a sound?

“Business is so difficult and it heavily relies on reputation, word of mouth and network. All of these things are optimised, created and strengthened through personal branding.”

At the extreme, both approaches are wrong. And take Jones’ word for it.

This is the man responsible for helping build the personal branding of Steven Bartlett – host of The Diary of a CEO podcast and leading entrepreneur, speaker, investor, author and BBC Dragon – along with a talented team of colleagues.

Jones was part of the founding team at Social Chain, which was the fastest growing social media agency in Europe, co-founded by Bartlett.

Other clients at Great Influence include Gary Neville – former Manchester United and England footballer and now broadcaster at Sky Sports – plus a host of CEOs from nine-figure value companies and multi-billion-dollar organisations, as well as household names, best-selling authors and political party leaders.

Power of personal branding

Despite an endless supply of available literature advocating why personal branding should be elevated to the top table of executive priorities, the vast majority of C-level leaders continue to opt against strategic self-promotion.

“I still don’t think it’s enough of a priority,” Jones commented. “I think the small amount who get it, get it and understand the long-tail career opportunity that it drives.”

Profile building should represent a “crucial part” of an ecosystem approach for aspiring business leaders, not just offline but online.

“When things are going well, it can supercharge your efforts and when things aren’t going well, it can calm the storms,” Jones said. “It’s essentially just broadcasting tactical messages in a bid to shape perception how you want – a very powerful tool in business.”

Rubbishing the notion that executive profile building is exclusively beneficial at an individual level, Jones emphasised the impact of personal brand on business performance.

“Everybody’s job gets easier in your company,” he explained. “That’s something Steven Bartlett would say when asked at Social Chain about the impact of personal brand on the company.

“It’s easier to sell, easier to hire, easier to retain, easier to raise, you name it. Your boss will make your job easier if he or she builds a strong personal brand.”

In that sense, is there a difference between personal branding and company branding at the CEO level?

“I think early on the company brand is the one or two people – the founder or co-founders – and then that company brand develops into a group of people and then it stands on its own as it grows,” Jones outlined.

“In my experience, 4-5 years into being CEO, start-ups especially hit a growth that demands the CEO step back from being in the business and much more of a PR / voice of the company role.”

But make no mistake, personal branding is important at every stage for a CEO, emphasised Jones.

“Always remember to build a personal brand by focusing on things that will help you move the needle for your company and career,” he said.

Yet mismatches exist depending on the sector, country and even nationality of an executive. This plays into the stereotypical viewpoint that across the diverse markets of Asia Pacific, executives view personal branding differently based on perceived cultural norms.

“Personal branding isn’t common in many industries or cultures but those are the ones where it becomes easier to stand out,” Jones advised.

“In marketing for example, there’s so many people at all levels of the career ladder leveraging personal branding that it’s hard to stand out. In construction or engineering, there’s very little so I would see that as a huge opportunity. The fundamental value it brings exists across all industries.”

How to build a personal brand

Technology is a competitive field however, meaning executives must create differentiated talking points to resonate.

“Talking about being a founder is a competitive field,” said Jones, recalling a breakfast meeting with a founder in London on LinkedIn. “Talking about teams, people and culture is a competitive field.”

Likewise for CEOs and non-founders running technology organisations given there’s only so many posts that audiences can stomach on generative AI or ChatGPT.

“Find your fusion,” Jones advised. “The way to stand out in a crowded space isn’t to move away from what you would naturally talk about if it wasn’t competitive but instead to fuse it with something else so that you do something in that field which nobody else is.”

For example, Jones shared that if an executive plays sports then the crossover between sports and business could create content on leadership and high-performing teams.

“The opportunity that comes from doing something different has never been higher when so many people are doing the same thing,” he recommended.

Most executives think building a personal brand is simply about creating content, a viewpoint Jones challenged with the recommendation that such content should be “well designed” to produce useful outcomes.

“Think of content as the Trojan Horse for the things you’re actually building,” he advised, via LinkedIn.

Specifically, this spans:

  • Positioning yourself to the business world
  • Evidencing your value, credibility and status
  • Consistently storytelling and building relationship equity
  • Grabbing the attention of new people
  • Strengthening your existing relationships

As a result, Jones advised that content created must:

  1. Position you in the right way. Otherwise you’ll end up with little
    useful real-world opportunity.
  2. Hold you in high value. If it’s low value, it’s counter productive.
  3. Always try to put yourself and your company story in there when you can. This is what makes people buy into you, past you or your company being merely interesting.
  4. Designed for the right people you need to be building a network of. A follower count is simply a number, it’s what that number means that matters.
  5. A true online reflection of the offline person. Nothing is more jarring than this not being the case and it has a reputation damaging effect.

In a nod to the success of Great Influence, Jones encouraged executives to listen to those who have built personal brands for others and not themselves – “if they haven’t built them for anyone you’ve heard of then that’s a red flag”.

Follow Ash Jones via LinkedIn or visit Great Influence.


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