The Principles of Employer Brand Leadership

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

Any strong employer brand leader could likely list off their organization’s core values at a moment’s notice. These values drive a company’s big picture and, at their best, fuel a health and innovative culture.

Those big-picture values, however, aren’t always precise enough to guide the day-to-day decision-making of teams and managers, says Whole Foods Market’s Sean Bestor. “How do you conduct yourself as a team member? How do you conduct yourself as a leader?” asks Bestor, Team Lead of Global Employer Brand Marketing. Those specific questions, he feels, influence employee behavior more directly than broad mission statements.

This investment in the moment-to-moment work of good leadership led Bestor to create and document a set of team principles and promises. His list illuminates some of the unspoken ideals of employer brand management and offers a roadmap to other leaders who aspire to stronger, more successful teams.

Guiding Principles for Employer Brand Teams

Communication, unsurprisingly, informs many of Bestor’s team principles. “Being open with each other,” “speaking the truth,” and “communicating quickly” are all central.

The employer brand team at Whole Foods Market meets on Monday mornings to outline the week’s goals, reflect on last week’s successes, and propose fixes. They prioritize honesty in these meetings, even when it’s uncomfortable. They’re also committed to responding within 24 hours to email and within 30 minutes to direct messages over platforms like Slack, keeping lines of communication moving quickly.

These systems also inform two of the team’s other principles: “We work efficiently” and “We aren’t the bottleneck.” They’re committed to minimal meetings and making the most of their time spent on-the-clock, eliminating the need to check in on each other over the weekends or during time-off.

Trust is also key. The team values “following through,” “having integrity,” and “respecting deadlines” as much as it does strong communication.

Bestor subscribes to the belief, “You are who you are when no one’s watching.” Behaving differently when out from under the watchful eye of a supervisor, he feels, doesn’t cultivate trust between employees and managers, nor does it yield good work. “If I have integrity,” he asks himself, “how do I conduct myself day to day and hour to hour to make sure that I’m doing what’s best for the company?”

As for Bestor’s reverence for deadlines, he invokes his journalism school roots, where “you’re only as good as your deadlines” was the rule. When confronting a missed deadline, Bestor says, “It’s always our problem. Either we missed it because we didn’t execute correctly, or we didn’t communicate upfront correctly to let people know what our current workload is.”

Balancing out this rigor is the team’s respect for “failing” and “giving grace.” Bestor nurtures his team’s instinct to try new things and accept the possibility of imperfection. “I encourage people to fail. That’s where the best stuff comes from,” he says. However, “if you fail the same way twice, then you’re not learning”; learning from mistakes is key to the team’s growth.

These commitments support the team in their ultimate principle: remembering their goal. As Bestor describes it, “At the end of the day, we’re trying to get people jobs, and we’re trying to help them have a livelihood.”

Guiding Principles for Employer Brand Leaders

These principles don’t just exist to enforce a strict standard of employee behavior. They also inform Bestor’s written promises to his team, which reflect his priorities as a leader and help him hold himself accountable.

“I trust you,” is his first promise, and the one he feels is the most emotionally rooted. However, he reminds his teammates, “I don’t ask you to trust me 100% out of the box. I need to gain your trust, and through my actions as a leader, I will earn your trust eventually.”

“I stand up for you,” is another key promise—Bestor is committed to backing the best interests of his team whenever they meet resistance. Similarly, he seeks to undo some of the harm of past authoritarian bosses with “I listen to you,” countering the ruthless seniority managers sometimes wield in corporate environments. “I’m open with you,” is another of Bestor’s attempts to thwart negative management stereotypes and jargony, vague corporate-speak.

One promise he’s seen tested during the adjustment to COVID-19 is “I treat you like an adult.” Bestor has seen many bosses struggle with micro-management, now that they can no longer peer over the shoulders of their in-office employees. Treating team members like adults, however, means trusting work-from-home employees to hold themselves accountable.

“I help you do your best work” and “I take pride in developing your career” are also crucial to Bestor and his investment in his employees’ futures. Many organizations’ “Careers” pages promise training and feature general statements on employee development. Bestor prioritizes setting specific, personal development goals with his team and tracking down the resources they need to meet those goals.

An experience with disappointing management led him to one of his most important promises: “I am in the trenches with you.” Bestor recalls being in a junior position at a firm in the midst of a grueling rebrand, watching his boss leave work at 5 p.m. while Bestor stayed late at the office and missed the last bus home in the middle of a Minnesota winter. That leadership ethos, he feels, isn’t acceptable on a small and close-knit employer brand team.

The act of recording and sharing these promises is an expression of Bestor’s final promise to his employees: “I am consistent with you.” A visual reminder, he believes, is essential to stay consistent in the face of moment-to-moment challenges and change.

How to Start Your Own List of Employer Brand Principles

For employer brand leaders ready to create their own set of principles and promises, Bestor recommends Ray Dalio’s Principles: Life and Work. Dalio specifically champions writing down these ideals as a strategy for building consistency and accountability.

Bestor isn’t opposed to other leaders borrowing his promises. However, leaders should start by reflecting on their own vision of an ideal team. Choosing the wrong principles, he warns, will make it all the more tempting to deviate from them and will damage team trust rapidly.

Employer brand managers should openly share their principles and promises with candidates, as well. A written code can be an effective filter in the hiring process, Bestor reminds us. While most applicants will likely give lip-service to things like integrity and deadlines, documenting your principles ensures that the best matches find their way to you.

To learn more about Sean’s work in employer brand, follow him on LinkedIn. To identify the values and culture you want to create at your company, talk to us about building your EVP.


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