MAD Perspectives Blog

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 Do Your Execs Believe in Social Media?

Peggy Dau - Thursday, April 07, 2011

I've been thinking about how companies get started using social media. External usage tends to be led by the marketing team. Their focus is on sharing company and product information with customers to increase brand awareness, thought leadership and ultimately lead generation. This does not mean that that companies are not focused on other uses (think Dell, Comcast or Jet Blue have not focused on customer service. We've read and heard about leaders in social media. But, I'm now thinking about how company leadership influence adoption or use of social media.

There are great case studies about Marriott, Cisco and Best Buy (to name a few) and how CEOs at these companies "got it" when thinking about the benefits of social media. However, many c-level execs think in a traditional hierarchical organization mindset. They raise concerns about risk, security and confidentiality. For me, this begs the question about leadership style. Do certain types of business leaders just "get it" easier than others, or are they just throwing caution to the wind?

In her book "Open Leadership" Charlene Li, shares her thoughts on how social technology can change the way you lead. She presents great examples of companies who have experienced success. She shares case studies on how social media has influenced leadership and culture. She also talks about the best mind set for open leadership:  passion for the vision, focus on relationships and a hacker mentality (by this she means dissatisfaction with the status quo). But still, I wonder, is that enough. I've experienced many leaders who had passion for "their" vision, focused on relationships (with customers, industry leaders or peers and executive peers within their company), yet, their support for social media was tepid at best.

Social media requires openness. Are leaders open? Social media is collaborative. Are leaders collaborative?  Social media requires trust. Are leaders trusting?  Social media is authentic. Are leaders authentic? In fact, this last question is the big issue that faced many of the top executives at financial services and automotive firms during the economic crisis. There is a significant cultural shift underway, enabled by social technology, that is bringing openness back to big business. Do customers and employees trust executives? Once upon a time, yes. Once upon a time companies were transparent. 

My career alma mater, HP, is a classic example. The HP of Bill and Dave was one of collaboration, innovation and openness. Trust was paramount. However, the HP of the past few years is hierarchical and siloed with employees living in fear of making a mistake that might cost them their job. Communication flows downstream and is edited and reshaped until it loses meaning. Power is craved and held tightly. The culture of open communication is long dead and the bottom line has become the driving force (and perhaps that is partly Wall Street's fault) of all activity. 

Executive support is critical for social media success. What leadership characteristics are needed to drive social media success from the top? I recently read "Leadership and Self Deception" by The Arbinger Institute. Their advice (adapted a bit for my own purposes) is relevant:

     - Don't try to be perfect - try to be better!
     - Don't use vocabulary people don't understand. Be clear and true to your own principles.
     - Don't impose your fears, confusion or uncertainty on others. Assume the best!
     - Don't give up when you make a mistake. Apologize and move forward.
     - Don't focus on what others are doing wrong. Focus on what you can do right to help!
     - Don't worry if others aren't helping you. Focus on helping others.

If your executives and senior leadership exhibit these characteristics (they sound awfully social don't they?!), your company can successfully implement social media tactics to engage customers. That is the goal, right? A meaningful social media strategy requires support and involvement from executives and employees across the company.  Employees won't feel empowered to be authentic and transparent unless their leadership also exhibits those traits.  Customers are demanding honesty and openness.  Social media is the desired method for this style of communication.  Are you ready?  Are your executives ready?

What's your perspective?