It’s not if but when should C-suite executives truly embrace the social age. Here are five reasons leaders should be social leaders.

There’s much debate about whether C-suite executives should embrace social media or not. Evangelists like president and CEO of Tangerine Bank, Peter Aceto, Zappo’s founder, Tony Hsieh and billionaire serial entrepreneur, Richard Branson, see it as the only way to survive in the social age. Yet according to a survey from global PR agency Weber Shandwick only 10% of Fortune 50 CEOs regularly Tweet.

Many commentators have passed off this reluctance to embrace the social web as ‘fogeyism’ – positioning C-suite executives as old dogs incapable of learning new tricks.

I don’t think shareholders would stand for their investments being sabotaged by out-of-touch executive teams if it had a negative financial impact on the share price.

Martin Thomas, co-founder of Dissident, an integrated marketing communications consultancy, offers a more plausible explanation for leaders’ reluctance. In an article titled: CEOs are ‘simply too old to understand social media fully‘ Thomas writes:

“The reason why only 10% of the chief executives running the world’s 50 largest companies regularly tweet is that they have weighed-up the pros and cons and decided that, on balance, it doesn’t represent a good use of their time and that the benefits from a communications perspective simply do not justify the risks”.

I am a firm believer that for C-suite executives a credible social presence will one day form a fundamental term of admittance to lead a company. The corporate boards who hire them will look upon social as a competency requirement. A ‘must have’ not a ‘nice-to-have’.

The question is not if, but when? Here are five reasons why C-suite executives should become social leaders

ceo social leaders

Show what makes you tick

Connected customers want to engage with a company that stands for something. They want to know what’s important to the brand they spend their money with. Customers and employees want to know what these companies believe in.

By definition all businesses are in the business of staying in business. However profitability over the long term requires loyalty from employees, trusting relationships with suppliers and customers and support from government and communities. This points to a need for business purpose which transcends the benchmark of making a profit.

The American economist, Michael Jensen, noted back in 2001:

“In order to maximize value, corporate managers must not only satisfy, but enlist the support of all corporate stakeholders – customers, employees, managers, suppliers, local communities. Top management plays a critical role in this function through its leadership and effectiveness in creating, projecting and sustaining the company’s strategic vision.”

Social leaders should demonstrate their appreciation of the different contexts in which their firm’s publics live their lives by understanding what is important to them, and by making sure their firms are part of the solution to the challenges facing them – not the cause of those problems.

By doing this social leaders change their firm’s culture lifting the mission and vision statements off the ‘about us’ pages of the corporate website and instilling the purpose into every action undertaken by the firm.


Two-way conversation

If there’s one word that sums up the social age, it’s engagement. Social leaders can use the social web as a means of creating meaningful interactions with all stakeholders. It’s an opportunity to speak directly with an audience in a two-way conversation. Not speaking via the conduit of the media. Not broadcasting messages which have been corporatised and parsed through layers of bureaucracy, via legal and marketing departments.

Here is an opportunity to hear first-hand what others really think about you and your brand and to respond directly.

Meaningful engagement has purpose. It is effort tied to loyalty. It takes an emotional investment. But the results are engaged supporters, and even advocates, of your company’s brand.

Nada and Andrew Kakabadse describe this process of engagement as being more than dialogue. They’ve coined the word ‘polylogue’ to better describe the “ceaseless conversations, negotiations, compromise, mutual exploration and enquiry” a brand has with its publics.

Focus groups on steroids

The social web provides honest, unfettered, real-time feedback. Social leaders can use Twitter and other social media platforms to listen to all the conversations being held about their brand.

It’s like installing permanent, ‘always on’ focus groups on steroids. It’s no longer about quarterly net promoter scores but about permanent engagement.

Social leaders who listen to social insights and encourage and empower their employees to also listen for signals create collective listening power. Nurturing this organisation-wide competency allows the firm to continually check its strategic fit with its environment and to spot commercial opportunities at scale.

The social web helps leaders better understand the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment of today. Where strategy is essentially the process that seeks to ensure the best fit between an organisation and its dynamic, unpredictable operating environment.


Speaking in human

The social web has allowed business to become more human again. Zappo’s social media policy runs to just five words: “Be real and use good judgement”. Here rules and regulations give way to organisational culture – the way we do things around here.

Social leaders can positively help shift their organisation’s culture from selling to solving by building a bond with their publics. This includes speaking their language. So leaders should swap industry jargon for the colloquial and conversational. Swap corporate hyperbole for sincerity and propaganda with authenticity.

Speak like a human. Not like a sales brochure, a legal document or the annual report. That is the way for leaders to form stronger connections with their publics.


Hang out with your audience

Customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders aren’t passively waiting to hear your firm’s next big advertising campaign or what the annual report will say. They’re already conferring with each other. They’re comparing notes and swapping stories about experiences good and bad.

This presents the opportunity to meet your publics where they are most comfortable to chat. And then to form communities based on purpose – rather than the products you are trying to sell. Old-skool selling has become repelling. We don’t want to be sold at, we want brands to come to us and help us solve our problems. Doing so will earn our trust, respect and desire to buy your services.


Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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  1. Right at this point in time I don’t think it should be a pre-requisite for a CEO to have a social media presence although that time is certainly fast approaching. As the digital agenda progresses, and corporations finally wake up and smell the coffee (that is, realise that digital transformation is a business imperative, not a social nicety), a CEO with first-hand experience of the social web will be far better placed to steer his or her organisation on its digital journey. One of the biggest challenges for those us involved in digital transformation now is winning hearts and minds. An effective digital strategy backed up with good governance is essential for success, and the job is always going to be so much easier if there exists a high level digital champion in the organisation. Who better than a CEO who ‘gets’ digital? Establishing a foothold in the social web opens CEO’s eyes to possibilities and their staff will love them for it. Digital transformation, and in particular strategy and governance is my speciality, and I’m currently seeking a new role. Do you need some help?

    1. Thanks John – and apologies for the slow response. You come at it from two angles but both acknowledging the social web as a change catalyst. (1) There’s a timing issue. A social media presence for C-suite will be a pre-requisite, BUT not just yet. (2) The C-suite is best placed in creating a vision for the future and driving organisational change from the top down. So, IF it’s inevitable that the social web will be such an important factor in the future – and it’s relatively straight-forward to create a presence – then why wait? Why not start now and be ahead of the curve.

      I wish you every success in you find your next role — best, Scott

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