Those in HR leadership can learn a thing or two from musician Taylor Swift, especially when looking at how she built and evolved her brand, image and reputation.
“What do I/we want to be known for?” permeates every action and corporate decision Swift makes, and it’s something every business leader should consider. This approach enabled her to push boundaries and explore new musical styles while seamlessly transitioning from teen country singer to global pop sensation and businesswoman who earned nearly $2 billion in 2023.
3 ways HR leadership can take the Taylor Swift approach
1. Make key stakeholders feel heard
By careful design, think how Swift’s strong, relatable messaging makes her target audience of young girls feel more “heard from,” more hopeful, stronger and more confident. These attributes further strengthen her brand—and are very much not to be underestimated or taken lightly nowadays amid what seems like a constant barrage of negative headlines and bad actors.
Swift demonstrates executive presence while projecting as an extremely positive, high performer who is always present and builds her network. She appears to listen carefully to what other people say, surrounds herself with high-quality advisors with whom she collaborates, and then executes what she wants to do—or, more precisely, what she needs to do. Do you have allies and advisors you can lean into in your role?
As an HR leader, your “audience” isn’t exactly a stadium full of screaming fans or the hundreds of people involved in making a pop star’s music and marketing machine work. But your employees deserve to feel just as “heard” as the Swifties do.
As an HR leader, you want your team and employees to feel more hopeful, stronger and confident. What can you do from your vantage point to do this in your company?
2. Try new things
Swift is a decisive and out-of-the-box leader, quick to try new models or business actions that make her brand and content more accessible, create a diversity of revenue streams and afford greater control over her intellectual property. Everybody merchandises, but Swift reinvented the game with her unique “merch” that her fans identify with and that drives even more brand affinity and community—a behemoth that generates sales exceeding $200 million annually.
In HR, we have a great opportunity to follow what Swift does, trying new models and ways to support teams. Don’t fall into the trap of “This is how we have always done it.” Keep connected to your employees and listen. Losing employees and replacing them is a very expensive proposition. Listen to understand, not just to respond.
In another stroke of out-of-the-box leadership genius, Swift again shook up the industry by re-recording her albums, gaining control of her master recordings while cementing ownership rights moving forward. Here, Swift deftly showcases her impressive approach to problem-solving with something so entirely original and yet even more impressive when contrasted against other top artists such as Paul McCartney, who lost control/rights to their music.
HR leaders have many opportunities to think differently to solve issues in a company: low morale, turnover, productivity, training gaps and hiring challenges. Where can you expand your thinking to embrace new ideas and creative approaches to familiar problems?
Trademarking “Swifties” is another obvious move in hindsight, but it is just part of a strong and diverse trademark portfolio. Or can’t make it to a show? No problem: Swift goes ahead and delivers the best concert movie possible: “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” now the highest-grossing film in box office history among concert and documentary films, with more than $261.6 million earned globally. Dating a football star? Leverage social media and high-profile TV appearances to extend the brand and control the message!
From a leadership perspective, she looks good doing things like this, and while doing it, she always models good caring behavior as part of the process. As HR leaders, we can develop different ways to communicate with employees and design events in different formats that bring people together.
3. Lead with empathy
Beyond setting a course for sustained and diverse corporate growth, Swift leads with empathy. For example, when a fan in Rio died of heat exposure, she postponed concerts and immediately posted on Instagram about being “devastated and shattered” from her dressing room at the stadium.
Perhaps even more impressively, the tour organizers—an extension of the Swift brand—took responsibility with an apology while stunningly acknowledging that they could have taken more measures to ensure concertgoer safety. Swift also met with the family and invited them as guests at her final Rio show.
Swift’s empathetic leadership style is also evidenced by the causes she cares about and invests in. There is a method to her philanthropy: investing her money and time into meaningful endeavors, such as donating books to her hometown library, helping fans pay off student loans, donating song proceeds to a New York City school, fighting for victims of sexual assault, supporting those affected by flooding in Louisiana and tornadoes in Nashville, giving back to food banks and pet rescue organizations—and on and on.
Swift also invests in altruistic companies like Toms Shoes and Bombay Socks, another thing her fans embrace. Gen Zers especially like associating with brands that strongly demonstrate their willingness to give back to the common good.
HR can play a critical role in directing companies to communicate clearly the causes they support and their philanthropic activities. Gen Zers are looking for that when joining an organization.
One might say that Swift has built more than a business; she has built a movement in an industry historically dominated by men at the top of the charts. People who buy those brands do so because they want positive associations. Swift repeatedly demonstrates that she has a corporate culture that projects positivity and appeals to people of all ages. She’s such a positive role model that parents may be willing to shell out up to $1,000 per ticket for their child to see her.
Exceptional HR leaders know how to share their vision and understand how to get people on board with whatever new goal they’re moving toward. Swift raised the bar so much that, like any other iconic business leader, she’s faced with the challenge of “How do I keep thrilling people?” I’m excited to see how she responds to the challenges going forward because I know that we can all learn a thing or two about HR leadership from watching Taylor Swift.