The symbiotic relationship between brand figureheads and institutional performance is clearly demonstrated in the career of Lance Armstrong. His initial rise, temporary retirement, and 2008 return all had significant bearing on the performance of his Livestrong charity, according to Businessweek.
Now - in the midst of Armstrong’s doping-related downfall - Livestrong faces the challenge of shifting brand ownership and public perception in time to avoid damage from Armstrong’s reputation.
Any company is vulnerable to lost momentum from the removal of a key brand figure – whether the loss is due to a tragic passing, retirement, attrition to more favorable shores, the tarnish of a critical mistake, or even a criminal act.
In publicly traded companies, it is typically the CEO or another executive who is seen as the cornerstone of the brand and the face of the institution. (Steve Jobs and Apple is a good example).
But in many member-owned institutions, the key “face” of the organization can also extend beyond obvious leaders. For some members, it could be a favorite teller or a familiar voice in the call center. For others, a remote service channel that was groomed to perfection by a dedicated back-office technologist.
Change is a critical part of any institution, but the shock of brand transition need not be a fatal one. Many companies are now relying on tactics like job swapping to spread their brand ownership among more than just a few key torchbearers. This job swapping occurs both between various roles within a company and between different intuitions and industries.
“Old school was: 'Keep it in-house and keep your secrets to yourself,'” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing firm Robert Half, speaking to CNN Money’s Fortune. “Executives today, the good ones, are going out and getting help."
Some companies are even temporarily reassigning some high-level employees lower level tasks (à la Undercover Boss), with the goal of keeping leaders grounded and attuned to the daily realities of the organization. At the same time, key low- to mid-level employees are given the chance to try out a leadership role, encouraging them to pursue a long-term career in the organization while building a wider, institutionally-verified pipeline of talent.
Expanding the definition of a brand leader and narrowing the gap between the leaders of today and the leaders of tomorrow will limit negative exposure from individual actions and yield a steadier course in times of transition.