The importance of reputation

The importance of reputation in The Australian Business Executive

Reputation is key.

Whether you’re talking about reputation in terms of a brand, business or as an individual – it’s always important to make sure that you protect your reputation and strive for brand integrity. Your reputation is what will define your success and how others perceive you – so it’s essential to build a positive reputation and maintain it over time.

But why is your reputation so important?

Having a strong reputation or personal brand provides you the license to be able to achieve what you need to get done in life, whether it be professional or for that matter personal.

People listen to those with strong reputations.

The good news? Building a reputation isn’t difficult, but maintaining one takes effort and any wrong steps can shatter reputations overnight.

Outlined below are some fundamental foundations for building a strong reputation which I have learnt over time through experience, and I put into practice when advising leaders.

Focus on the issue not the person

I remember when I drafted a speech for a leader of a political party, I had a sentence which was effectively a personal attack on a member on the opposite side of politics. The politician that I drafted the speech for put a line through the attack and said, “I will never do that – I will never attack my opponents personally. I only deal with the issues”.

For me it was a very important lesson and one that has stayed with me over the decades. This was part of his personal brand and centres around dealing with the substance of the debate and not rely on personal attacks to try and build a reputation.

For the four years that I worked with this leader he never once went on a personal attack, and he built a reputation for someone who could get things done.

In the world of politics, it is rare for someone to rely on their ability to debate the issues.

By attacking the person and not the issue It undermines your ability to be perceived as a person of integrity and substance – two key elements of building a long lasting strong personal reputation and brand.

To attacks others is also very divisive.

Focusing on the issues at hand rather than pulling others down, also focus’s the minds of others on issues and not on personalities.

The same can be said for corporate reputation. Putting down competitors reflects more on your own company than the competitor. Focus on company strengths, not on competitor weaknesses. After working on corporate leadership teams for almost 20 years, one thing I learnt is that issues will arise, and corporate life is not always be smooth sailing.

If you attack your opponents, you can expect the tide to turn once you, or your company, runs into difficulties.

Walking the talk

You must be proactive, consistent and as the old saying goes “walk the talk” over time to succeed in building a lasting positive reputation. Aligning all aspects of what you do with what you say and the actions you take is key, particularly in a day and age where all your actions and words sit on the digital medium and can be recalled through internet searches.

You want to leave people with the impression that you are trustworthy, reliable and credible. People can sense very quickly when your actions and words don’t align, and you can be called out on it.

People not only focus on what you say, they also focus on how you say it. There is not only verbal communication, but also what people observe. One senior executive I worked with was responsible for safety in a large organisation. When at traffic lights, he would wait until the walk signal illuminated before he would cross the road. He lived responsibilities and others observed his commitment.

Another mentor during my career referred to it as “felt” leadership. He would say if you see a piece of paper on a factory floor, don’t walk past it. Pick it up and put it in the bin as people will observe your behaviour.

By “walking the talk” others will emulate your behaviour and tend to listen more intensely to what you have to say.

As a leader it will help people align with your agenda and move in the direction you want to take an organisation or career.

Talk about what you have achieved – not what you are going to do

I refer to this as the “quiet achiever” profile. The issue with constantly talking about what you are “going to do” is the build-up of expectations among stakeholders. The more expectations the greater the risk of some or all of them not being met in the minds of those stakeholders.

It goes to the question of credibility. The expression under promising and overachieving particularly comes to mind. CEO’s of listed companies understand the impact of the opposite, over promising and under delivering. It shows up in a depressed share price very quickly. By not meeting expectations, listed companies will typically have a lower share price when compared to competitors.

This is particularly the case when a company reports unexpected negative news or misses a target communicated to the marketplace.

Also, the opposite is the case. If a company continually meets market expectations, it will trade on a higher price earnings ratio than competitors over time.

Which brings me on to the next foundation.

The Intellectual Syndrome – stick to your lane

As a society we tend to elevate those that are experts or successful in one particular area to become experts on everything. This is a false economy.

People often get trapped by their own “fame” as it were and then are often to become commentators on areas where they have no expertise. I call this the “The Intellectual Syndrome.”

The potential to make uninformed comments on a topic will increase considerably when one strays from their knowledge base.

Science and debate are one thing, but when a person decides they have the ability, as against the right, to make informed comment on a controversial topic for which they have no knowledge, they open themselves to broad criticism. Sometimes that criticism can overshadow what they were debating about in the first place and the argument is lost and their reputation damaged.

When advising leaders, I always suggest they not respond to topics which are unrelated to their area of expertise. In this day and age, journalists and other commentators will seek opinions across a broad range of topics. It is trap that a lot of people fall into and in fact feel privileged for being asked about topics outside their filed of knowledge. The risk to reputation is far too great.

There are those that will provide a view on all topics and there are now many platforms which allows people to express a view. Consider that 90% of tweets on Twitter are written by 10% of users and you can understand the dimensions of “the Intellectual Syndrome”.

But for those that choose to comment on all topics, understand they leave themselves open to criticism and that their reputations over time may not be as robust as those that stick to their knowledge base.

This is particularly the case as a leader progresses closer to the top of their given field.

Say what you need – not what you want

Some are of the view that building reputation is about maximum exposure. Over my career I have seen people build reputations quickly which have died off just as quickly from over exposure.

Sticking to the principles outlined above allows for the building of a robust reputation that will stand the test of time.

It will take longer to build but it will pay dividends in the longer term when compared to heightened exposure in a shorter period of time.

Often engagement is confused with exposure the former being necessary at the relevant periods of time. Plan what you need to say at the right time to ensure what is being said is relevant, timely and will guide and add value the listening and observant audience.

Good communication is more about the listening than what is being said. If you say things too often, the audience will stop listening. Say what needs to be said, not what you want to say. It is a different lens.

Some conclusions

Ultimately what you say is who you are in the world. People don’t judge you based on who you think you are, they judge you based on what conversations there are in the world about you. To a large part, what governs those conversations is what you say, how you act and how you appear to others, not how you think you appear. That is not to say that you don’t have confidence in what you say, but tone it down with humility.

In summary, the foundations for building a good reputation include:

  1. Focus on the issue not the person
  2. Walk the talk
  3. Talk about what you have achieved – not what you are going to do
  4. Stick to your lane – The Intellectual Syndrome
  5. Say what you need – not what you want

By adopting these foundations, your ability to build reputation over time will be enhanced.

Mark Gell is a Founder and Partner of Reputation Edge. He has provided counsel to political leaders, CEOs and Boards for almost 40 years,


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