It is generally understood that if you hang out with the cool kids, you (by extension or osmosis) have a similar ethos.

“The popular kids aren’t always pushing to do bad things”, said Mitch Prinstein when speaking with The Atlantic. Prinstein, author of Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, says that the power of the cool kids don’t just influence sex, drugs, and partying – they influence community engagement, support classmates who need it, and promote other positive behaviors. A style counter to the notorious Tracy Flick of the famed 1999 dark comedy, Election.

Brand affiliation

At a company level, brand affiliation is often described as the club that clients and customers join when they choose certain products, services, or companies. Being a client of McKinsey & Company, for example, has a certain cache because of the history of the company and its famous (or infamous) reputation that “nobody ever got fired for hiring McKinsey.

On a human level, we naturally gravitate towards brands and people that we admire and aspire to be like. Because when we are affiliated with brands or people, we too build our personal leader brands, giving ourselves a reason to believe that we are something special, and perceptually others see us a certain way.

Consider the reason that society pages in newspapers and magazines are still some of the most read, talked about, and shared content. They have been around since the late 1800s to report on socialites, including rich people, government, and military officials. News ranged from run-of-the-mill (trips, club meetings) to extravagant (social events and celebrations). They reinforced society’s “ruling class” and illustrated its desired, privileged lifestyle. These pages ultimately show socialites connected with one another, their lifestyle, and ideology.

As leaders, who we connect with or are connected with is at the center of our brand affiliation. If the traditional definition of brand affiliation is a club that customers join when they choose your brand, it’s the same thing with people. Our personal leader brands are tied to those with whom we affiliate; and, as individuals representing companies, our thinking, engagement, and reputation are tied to the ecosystems where we are a part of.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: If you are leading an enterprise technology company, how would you be perceived if you also served on the board of a recreational cannabis company?

Thought leadership starts with hanging with the perceived cool kids

Often, when CEOs and other C-level executives first dip their toes into the thought leadership waters – or take public positions on issues that are relevant to society and connect directly to the unique expertise of the company – we recommend that they attend some high-profile events.

Why? To get a flavor of what engagement within a peer group looks and feels like. They need to understand who stands for what, watch human behavior and interaction, and make intentional decisions about what to do, what to say, who to affiliate with, and what to stand for.

One woman executive was so fearful of attending her first global CEO event that she nearly canceled; her fear was that no one would want to talk to her, that she wouldn’t have anything to say to “these important people”, and that she would be sitting at a table alone. That kind of anxiety or Imposter Syndrome is normal – it meant that she cared. We urged and cheered her on at her first event, which she said was “the best professional development experience of her career.”

One event turned into a second C-level networking event, which turned into a desire to tack on high-profile events wherever she traveled. Doing so allowed for listening, ecosystem building, and sharpening of her thought-leading beliefs. She has since gone on to develop an IoT-focused thought leadership platform, become well-recognized as being close to influencers and decision-makers, and continues to shape her brand and business as “leading the dialogue.”

Choose affiliation wisely

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual four-day conference in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland is considered the most elite economic event of the year. In 2020, attendees included Donald Trump (former U.S. President), Greta Thunberg (climate activist), David Solomon (Goldman Sachs CEO), Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase CEO), and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO).

With 119 billionaires, 53 heads of state, and an $8.3 million security bill, Davos is considered the place to be for those business leaders who want to be seen, create affiliation, and “build a cool kids strategy.” Not to mention, the long track record of business action, political breakthroughs, and economic theories that have advanced at Davos.

“Six days of work at Davos is easily six months of work in other places for these people”, said Ian Bremmer, the founder of the Eurasia Group, who has worked with the forum over the years. “That intensity is valuable.”

However, in the 50 years that Davos has been holding its annual meetings, men have significantly outnumbered women (22% women in 2020). And older men at that, with a median age of 54 years old.

This is despite a quota requiring large businesses to bring one woman for every five men in attendance. In fact, the term “Davos man” has become its own tag synonymous with the typical attendee – powerful, wealthy, elite, and male. This blind spot has resulted in mixed publicity about Davos being out of touch, past its prime, and exclusive of minorities.

That said, we’ve recommended many a CEO attend Davos. Why? Until there is an alternative or a move to make Davos a more inclusive and inviting environment for women and leaders from underrepresented populations, we still need to fish where the fish are swimming.

Alliances in crisis

Your professional network may prove to be essential during a time of professional crisis or when you are bouncing back. According to the Harvard Business Review, you and your network travel in the same circles, and they can vouch for you by either endorsing you with specific individuals or validating you through social media.

In a 2015 study, Schepker and Barker researched what happens to CEOs when they are dismissed from their posts. Many CEOs want second chances or new opportunities to run companies. The researchers introduce the concept of “CEO Dismissal Theory”, suggesting that leaders with stronger reputations and social capital can offset the stigma of being dismissed.

Schepker and Barker outline the importance of having a strong reputation with influential people because they can certify reputation, indicate trustworthiness, and validate capabilities and expertise. They also reinforce the importance of social capital or available resources and relationships that can be tapped upon to strengthen a position. It allows leaders to call upon influential colleagues for help, door opening, and references when a career is at risk or trustworthiness is in question.

A chief operating officer of a private consumer products company was exited from her role in the midst of Covid-19 in an effort to reduce cost and redirect strategy. She was initially angry and defensive about her dismissal. Yet, once she was able to wrap her head around the reasons for her exit, she was able to message it, reach out to her close network, ask for help with introductions, and successfully land a new (and even better) role.

Be careful of personal agendas

There’s a famous and well-documented rivalry between the two global banking giants, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. Of course, Goldman Sachs is still standing and has been rumored to have contributed to the 2008 bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers.

The Lehman-Goldman rivalry was personal, with deeply seeded Lehman jealousy of the dominance of the Goldmans in gold and their second-row seating at the Jewish temple. Philip Lehman was an intensely focused businessman who valued status, and status came in the form of where you sat in the temple. The Lehmans sat in the fourth row.

Fortuitously, the wives of Philip Lehman and Henry Goldman gave birth to sons on the same day which meant that nine days later, both boys would be circumcised at the temple. Both men sat on the bema (temple stage) together with their crying sons, and struck up an unlikely conversation.

The result was a handshake agreement of a joint venture described in the book, The Lehman Trilogy as “the wolf licking the bear and vice versa.” It was Philip Lehman’s intention “to form an alliance, triumph, and dispose of like garbage.”

However, in addition to a shared business model that lasted for 10+ years, Philip Lehman ultimately described the agreement as “an alliance for victory.” Both firms made a lot of money and they jointly shared the second row in the temple.

Operate and build relationships with the same high levels of ethics and integrity.

Sadly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending with two families linking arms, proud of their association. It is rumored that Goldman Sachs had initiated short-selling on Lehman Brothers that made the stock drop from $80 per share to $2 per share and were instrumental in describing the ethics and integrity issues to the Treasury Secretary who had been investigating Lehman Brothers.

The moral: Operate and build relationships with the same high levels of ethics and integrity. We may want to hang with those that we view as being in greater circles. Let’s leave our agendas at the door.

Stepping away from relationships

We hopefully have established that a personal brand association speaks to your personal brand promise. Stepping away from a relationship says something, too.

You have to dig a little deeper and see where the people you associate with are hanging out and think about the alignment between both of your respective missions, purposes, and beliefs. Proactively examining brand alignment with others can serve you well and preserve your reputation.

We tell our kids that who they hang out with is a reflection on them and to continuously ask themselves if they are making good choices or not. How often are we doing the same with our own business relationships? Who are we connected to, either through LinkedIn or otherwise, that could impact our brands?

A “cool kid” that you are connected to on LinkedIn or Instagram can provide a job reference just because you are connected. At the same time, HR recruiters can just as easily look at your social feeds and make decisions based upon the number of photos you’ve posted from spring break 15 years ago (“cool kids turned cringy kids”).

The founder and CEO of a medical technology start-up company submitted her leadership team for due diligence with a large healthcare conglomerate. Her CTO was flagged as a risk because of his public outspokenness about politics and his support for certain candidates.

Yes, this is steeped in greater questions; however, perception is reality. Who you support in the business and political worlds creates opportunities to advance your brand or hurt it among people who disagree with your perspective.

In the end, the cool kids strategy is certainly worth exploring. Yes, there may be some potholes on the road to enhancing your personal brand promise, but just like in high school, driving to the beach in mom’s minivan may have been embarrassing and awkward, but once you arrived, you knew the journey to the destination was well worth it.

Cover image source: Evangeline Shaw