As founder, president, and CEO of Sterling Marketing Group, Karen Tiber Leland heads a strategic communications company that provides brand guidance and marketing consulting services for CEOs and other top executives across sectors in more than 50 countries. Her specialties include executives, CEOs, and personal branding, thought leadership, leadership development, executive presence, social media, and color strategy. Her clients have included Apple, AT&T, Capital One, Google, Johnson & Johnson, LinkedIn, Sprint, and Twitter.
Leland is also a best-selling author, having written ten books that have sold more than 450,000 copies worldwide, the most recent of which is “The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand.” She is a contributing writer for Inc. Magazine and Entrepreneur.com and has spoken for YPO, TEDx, Harvard, and Stanford. Leland has also been interviewed by top media outlets including The Today Show, CNN, Fox Business, Bloomberg, and Oprah.
In addition to her work advising CEOs and top corporations, Leland is a lifelong supporter of the arts, whose paintings and prints have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA., among others. She has also performed onstage and in industrial films and voice-overs. Leland is a graduate of Antioch University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Organizational Development.
We spoke recently with Leland about her business and her ideas about diversity in the workplace.
Slone Partners: At Sterling Marketing Group you help top executives and entrepreneurs develop stronger personal, business, and team brands. What are the principles that guide your brand-building strategies?
Karen Tiber Leland: One primary principle that guides my strategy is that you have to build a brand organically. A lot of people rush headlong into brand and buzz-building tactics. And the problem is they often move into those tactics without thinking through the strategy first, and that always ends up costing people time and money. So, it is essential that you build your brand – whether it’s a personal brand, a team brand, a business brand, or a CEO brand – in an organic fashion, based on an overarching strategy, not just on those tactics that you think are a good idea to employ.
Slone Partners: What obstacles have you encountered and overcome in founding and growing your company? Do you feel that any of those obstacles were somehow affected by gender and gender bias in the business world?
Karen Tiber Leland: There are always obstacles in growing a business, and some of them are ones almost everybody encounters, for example, time management. How do you figure out the ideal balance between marketing the business, delivering the goods or services, coming up with new ideas, networking, and doing all the tasks that need to be done? There is always the challenge of figuring out that balance. And that balance changes depending on where you are in the business and what’s happening in the marketplace. For example, COVID was a great time for doing a lot of networking and reaching out, especially at the beginning when everyone was on stay-at-home orders. That’s an example of my being able to dedicate more time to networking because due to circumstances outside my control I was doing less delivering of my service.
In terms of other obstacles, I grew up in a working generation where I encountered gender bias daily. When I ran my management consulting firm, a few decades ago, I had a male business partner, and we would attend meetings in which the client would address him and ignore me. I had to fight a lot harder to be heard in those days.
So, as a woman, I had to learn how to stick up for myself and be heard – in an elegant way. I learned how to let my work speak for itself, without being intimidated by the other person’s bias. That’s not to say I think that was right. It wasn’t and thankfully we have come a long way, but I never let that stop me. I’ve always been somebody who just kept charging forward, even in those situations. I always knew that if I did excellent work, that would be the most important thing. That having been said, I’ve had lots of circumstances, especially when I was younger, where I had to tell somebody, “Keep your hands to yourself.” And they did.
Slone Partners: As a follow-up question, what advantages do you, as a woman, bring to the leadership table, and how have you been able to successfully leverage those throughout your career?
Karen Tiber Leland: Being able to bring empathy, harmony, and a sense of humor to a situation has been a great advantage in my career. My business is all about relationships, so it’s essential to develop the ability to empathize with people and understand their points of view and help create consensus. All of that is critical to what I do in my business. And I think those are things where being a woman has been extremely helpful.
Slone Partners: Women have had a difficult time breaking into the C-suite in the life sciences, particularly in biotech and pharma, where 90% of CEOs are men. In your opinion, what can and should be done to achieve more gender-balanced leadership in the sector?
Karen Tiber Leland: CEOs in the life sciences and elsewhere need to be much more proactive about getting women into C-suite positions. One of the things that has historically happened is that by default most of the candidates they are considering or are being sent by big national recruiting firms have been men. So it’s on them to seek out or request to be sent female or diverse candidates. Executives who make this type of C-suite gender and diversity balance an active goal, something that is a core value of the business, stand a significantly greater chance of making it happen.
Slone Partners: Drawing on your more than 25 years of consulting experience, what changes have you seen companies make to develop more diverse and inclusive workplaces? Are you encouraged by the recent trends that you’re seeing?
Karen Tiber Leland: There are two trends that I’m observing. One is the awakening to the fact that there hasn’t been the gender or diversity balance that there needs to be. Second, there’s starting to be a recognition that diversity is critical, not for reasons of being politically correct, but because diversity creates strength in organizations.
If you just look at nature, what we know is the more diverse a system is, the stronger it is. So, what’s starting to happen is the recognition that a company needs to be diverse not because someone is making them, or because it’s politically correct, but because it’s the right thing to do and it’s the best thing for the business. I don’t think that’s happened a hundred percent, but it’s getting there.
The other trend I’m seeing, and I’m encouraged by this, is that we are now living in a world where CEOs understand that they need to weigh in on serious issues in the social sphere. A lot of CEOs were calling me last summer as the Black Lives Matter movement was regaining momentum and saying, “I want to say something in support, but I’m not sure I should. Is it my place?”
I always encouraged them to consider what was the right thing, the most authentic thing, to do. A lot of them felt they needed to weigh in to show support for the people of color in their organization, and they genuinely felt that they wanted to use their voice to help. I think that’s a big change. It used to be that the last thing executives would do is comment on anything controversial in public. Today you are seeing CEOs realizing that they have to take a stand when it is both appropriate and authentic.
Slone Partners: What advice do you have for other women who want to create their own companies and otherwise establish their place in the business world by building their own unique, marketable brands?
Karen Tiber Leland: It’s really interesting. Most of the time when a male CEO calls me, they say, “Okay, I need to build my CEO brand. I need to get out there. I need to be a thought leader.” However, when women executives call me, particularly those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), they’re often hesitant. They will say to me, “I don’t want to brag.” I’ve noticed there’s a lot more hesitancy on women’s part to promote themselves.
And when I say promote, I mean to promote in a positive way, not in an obnoxious or a bragging way, but in the regular old garden-variety way you need to elevate yourself and your brand to be successful. I think women need to realize that if they’re going to build a business, they are going to need to create and promote their personal brand in the same effective way that most men do without even giving it a second thought.
Slone Partners: Did you experience a particular ‘a-ha moment’ (or two) early in your career that had a significant impact on your subsequent career development? How did those moments shape your leadership model?
Karen Tiber Leland: Yes. I think the biggest thing I learned early on was realizing that no matter what, in business you have to do the right thing even if the right thing costs you money. That’s the most important guiding principle I’ve tried to live by while running my business over the last 20+ years.
The other thing I learned early is quite simple – do what you say you’re going to do. Nobody’s perfect, but in general, when you tell a client you’re going to do something, then do it, and if you can’t do it, let them know you can’t do it. Or if you can’t do it by the time you said you can do it, tell them you can’t do it by that time. The worst thing is when people create a lot of incompletions for other people by not keeping their word.
Slone Partners: In your most recent book, “The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand,” you share insights on brand practices and anecdotes from real-life brand success stories across companies and sectors. Please share a few of these with us, and please explain how they can apply to the healthcare and life science industry.
Karen Tiber Leland: One brand practice that I think is important from a business point of view is doing what I call branding from the inside out, which is the idea of making sure that what you say externally to your customers and the kind of brand you’re trying to create externally is mirrored internally by how you work with your employees and how you run your organization. I observe a lot of companies that say one thing to the outside world while running their businesses in an entirely different way. And some of the clients I’ve worked with have done a great job of branding from the inside out, creating an organization that’s very customer-focused and very brand-focused, but not just from a point of view of their customers, but their employees as well. I think that’s critically important for building a successful business brand.
From a personal point of view, it’s critical that people follow best branding practices such as having an up-to-date, fully fleshed out, well branded, narratively written LinkedIn profile. Many CEOs and C-suite executives in the life sciences call me for personal branding work, and the first thing I’ll look at is their online profile. LinkedIn is one of the foundations because it’s business-to-business social media. It’s surprising to me how many people are not managing their online reputation. One of the big lessons from the book is that the people who are successful at personal branding are very good at managing their online reputation. I think that’s critical. If you’re not defining your brand, someone else will define it for you.
Slone Partners: What are the things you make time for in your personal life that bring you the most joy?
Karen Tiber Leland: I love traveling to anywhere new, cooking, horseback riding, and doing art, photography, painting, drawing, and lately I’ve been getting into making jewelry.