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The Power of Personal Branding for CEOs

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Whether you’re CEO of a large corporation or owner of a dog grooming start-up, investing in your personal brand is always a guaranteed investment in your company. When the individual at the helm has the right image and reputation, they impact everything from boosting the company brand to forging emotional connections with employees, investors, customers, and media.

When done right, personal branding builds mind and market share alike and can directly influence the bottom line. Done wrong, it can completely destroy a company’s image and financials. This is especially important to remember today, when a CEO’s every value, opinion, comment, and characteristic is up for public review. So, how do you get it right?

A great example of excellent Executive Personal Branding is Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly. Gary has been indispensable in propelling Southwest as the world’s largest low-cost carrier. He’s also helped secure it as a mainstay on Fortune magazine’s list of the most admired companies in the world. (It ranked seventh in 2016.)

A 30-year Southwest veteran, Gary began his career as Controller, moving up the ranks as Chief Financial Officer, V.P. Finance, Executive V.P. and CFO, and finally CEO and Vice Chairman in July 2004. In 2008, he added “Chairman” and “President” to his resume.

He embodies the hero's journey and has brought a huge number of employees through 2020’s crisis.

Executive Personal Branding is of High Importance Now More Than Ever

Not too long ago, CEOs were sequestered in their ivory towers, far from the spotlight. But today, the CEO is the face of the company. They must be visible internally, externally, and virtually.

Gary’s biggest source of pride is the fact that Southwest Airlines has never had a single layoff in the airline’s 48-year history. Gary has pioneered the airline’s transformation through several major initiatives, including the acquisition of AirTran Airways, the repeal of the Wright Amendment, the launch of international destinations for the first time in Southwest’s history, the installment of a new reservation system, and the launch of service to Hawaii in 2019 —all while staying true to the Company’s core values and People-centric Culture.

Gary has received numerous awards and recognitions over the years, including the 2020 Philanthropic Leadership Award by the Ireland Funds; the 2017 Wings Club Distinguished Achievement Award; he is a 2017 Junior Achievement Dallas Business Hall of Fame Laureate inductee; 2016 inductee into the Texas Business Hall of Fame; and he is the recipient of the prestigious 2016 Tony Jannus Award. Gary was twice named D CEO Magazine’s CEO of the Year; he’s been named one of the best CEOs in America by Institutional Investor magazine three times. In 2010, Gary was honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Texas at Austin, and in 2013, Gary was inducted into the McCombs School of Business Hall of Fame at the University of Texas at Austin. Gary received the 2013 Father of the Year Award; and Gary was the recipient of the 2013 McLane Leadership in Business Award at Texas A&M University.

“We still believe that we are in the people business, and it’s our people that make the culture so strong,” - Gary in an article with Huff Post

Gary’s leadership style can best be described as collaborative. “I really enjoy the team aspect of what we do here at Southwest,” he said. “No one person can know or do it all. And the more we can collaborate and work together as a team, the better product we will have.”

Gary and Southwest also place a premium on fun, even if that’s simply bringing people together to celebrate birthdays, share stories, or reward good work. “We always encourage employees to be themselves — sharing a song, a joke,” he said. “It’s the little things that make the culture very rich and make the experience of Southwest very different.”

The Power of ‘We’

Gary knows he alone cannot be Southwest’s brand ambassador. At the airline, all employees (more than 53,000) are encouraged to embrace the company’s mission: taking care of customers. This philosophy is built into everything from internal emails to advertising and social media. Recruiting the right people is also paramount. Gary believes in “hiring for attitude and training for skill” to perpetuate an already-strong culture.

It’s not easy. There’s a tremendous amount of competition in the airline industry. That’s why outstanding services — and not just attractive pricing — is key. “More today than ever, [our] service aspect or our people really set us apart,” he said. “When I describe service, I’m not talking about first class or frills and amenities. Our people serve our customers as if they were guests in their own home.”

Internal Satisfaction

Many studies reveal employees with high job satisfaction are generally more productive, engaged, and loyal to their companies. There’s proof of this at Southwest, where several employees are 40-plus year veterans. Many of these workers started in entry-level positions and worked their way up to leadership.

On the workplace review website Glassdoor, Southwest is rated one of the top places to work in the U.S. Excerpts from employees include:

“Every leader I’ve met has always made me feel like my work was appreciated and made a difference.”

“This is my first airline job and I feel I hit the jackpot by choosing Southwest as my last place of employment. I’m 28 and plan to stay until I retire!”

“I’ve never had a CEO of a company walk down the hall and know my name.”

Broadcasting That Executive Personal Brand

In today’s world, modern CEOs are expected to have an active social media presence. They must understand that social media increases transparency and accessibility and instills confidence. They’re also expected to project a personal brand that aligns with the company brand.

Gary and Southwest excel at this, maintaining a fun, cohesive voice across all communication channels. It works. The Southwest fan page has more fans than any other airline: 5.3 million.

The experts agree with Gary’s approach. According to Allison Kluger, a management professor at Stanford and former producer for The View, “These days, the CEO wants to be visible, serve as the embodiment of the brand and understands that the culture reflects his or her values in a very outward facing manner. Today’s CEOs want their values to permeate the company brand.”

Transformation and Growth

As with any major company, there have been challenges coming out of 2020. Still, Southwest has managed to grow spectacularly regardless of spiking energy prices, fierce competition, and recessions. The company is always innovating. Gary believes there’s even more ahead for Southwest: “We have huge opportunities to grow the airline over the next five years. I think Southwest airlines is one of the top companies in the world, not just the top airline.”

“The focus on reliability and hospitality will be very important to sustain that.” - Gary

CEO reputation is the new currency, and will no doubt increase in value in the years to come. In an increasingly connected and transparent world, keeping a low profile is no longer an option. There is a huge opportunity in which CEOs can share their company story and join the conversation. Here at Executive Brand Growth we want to be part of the success of telling that story. Cheers!


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