September 13, 2012
Social Media For CEOs: I’ll Frame The Debate – You Decide

As a chief executive, as a leader, you have one primary responsibility: to lead. I’ve always said the greatest testimony to the value of leadership is what occurs in its absence – very little. Don’t believe me? Examine any aspect of business where performance is suspect, and you’ll find leadership is suspect as well. So my question is this: Are you leading when it comes to social media?

Here’s the thing – your decision as to whether or not to engage in social media sends a clear leadership message – either way, participate or not, you’re leading. You’re either leading your organization toward social media or away from social media – the question is, are you moving your organization in the right or wrong direction? I’ll frame the debate – you decide…

While the debate surrounding the benefits of social media for most user segments has long since been resolved, this is clearly not the case for CEOs. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate. News Flash (code for why you should keep reading): where great debate is taking place, great opportunities exist for those willing to lead.

I promised to frame the debate, so here goes:

The Dissenting Position:
The stance of the risk adverse is there is little to be gained, but the potential for much to be lost in social media initiatives involving C-level executives. The fear of exposing executives and the corporate brand to public criticism, along with disclosure concerns with regard to forward looking statements, and other potential leaks of confidential information have caused concern for boards and legal departments. As for CEOs themselves, many of them simply are uncomfortable with the medium and the tools, and while most of them understand there is upside potential here, they have a very difficult time seeing past their already overcommitted schedule.

The Affirmative Position:
Proponents of C-level social media participation believe the digital universe provides the CEO with the ultimate platform to evangelize the corporate brand, and to effectively communicate across multiple constituencies. These proponents are opportunity managers more than risk managers who believe engagement to be more valuable than silence, they believe in dialog not monologue, they believe in change and innovation – not in status quo.

The Truth (as I see it):
A main point of consideration for CEOs is that social media transforms you from an enigma (the stereotype of the uncaring corporate executive) into a human being people can relate to. Social media personalizes you in a way that few other mediums can. Whether you Tweet, Blog, Facebook, YouTube, etc., these communities allow you to be known for the whole of who you are as an individual, not just as a bio on the corporate website. The following list is comprised of a few representative examples of reasons why all CEOs should be actively engaged in social media:

1. Leadership Benefits: As CEO, you’re not supposed to be the relic, but the visionary. This may hit a little close to home for some, but the message needs to be heard. Great leaders lead by example. How can you ask members of your team to be innovative, engaged, proactive, creative, authentic, transparent, and communicative if you are none of those things? You cannot be an effective leader if you don’t model the behavior you seek in others. Be a leader or be a disingenuous hypocrite – the choice is yours.

2. Learning Benefits: Social media is not just a tool for pushing out corporate propaganda – use it as such and you’ll pay a steep price. What it is, is open access to people, relationships, communities, and constituencies. Put simply, it’s a chance to observe, listen, process, learn and engage. A CEOs needs to understand that in addition to affording them with the benefit of directly interacting with consumers of their goods and services, social media also provides a window into the insights of their employees and allows them to monitor the pulse of their culture. Social media also allows you access to business, market, and competitive intelligence in real time.

3. Business Benefits: Yes, I know, you’re the CEO and you have to pay attention to business. Well, social media does have significant ability to drive revenue, increase personal and corporate brand equity, open markets, create relationships, drive innovation, improve morale, build partnerships, attract & retain talent, and to generate communications leverage. Not only does social media work, but it works even better when the participant has a bit of cache. The truth is, the farther up the org chart one resides, the more influence one possesses, and the more leverage one creates, the more one can accomplish via social media. You can do none of these things effectively by sticking your head in the sand and pretending social media doesn’t matter.

4. Communications Benefits: I hesitate to mention this because it’s been so overused, but because it’s true, here goes: “The conversation is already taking place, so you might as well be a part of it.” Social media gives you the ability to be proactive in your communications, or if needed, provide a rapid response to a crisis. Unfortunate things happen in business, and sadly, they’ll likely happen to you at some point. Having strong relationships, supporters, and fans created through social media is invaluable – so is having a channel to quickly and credibly communicate with those who don’t fall into the latter categories.

5. Legacy Benefits: I’ve often said the best legacy is one that can be lived before you’re gone. A legacy is shaped by the sum total of your personal and professional contributions, and most significantly by those contributions which have been the most beneficial to others. Social media takes your personal interests and your professional body of work and extends them across a broader demographic and a larger community. Social media can enhance the value of existing relationships and create new ones. It can help you evangelize your passions, recruit people to your causes, and to help others with their causes. Social media can help you and those you care about make significant contributions.

It may be worthy of noting for CEOs considering getting involved with social media, you won’t be alone – plenty of big dogs are already taking their message online. CEOs and former CEOs like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, John Mackey, Michael Dell, Martha Stewart, Steve Forbes, Mark Cuban, Eric Schmidt, Reid Hoffman, and many others have already plowed the ground making it more fertile soil for you.

If you’re still a skeptic, I’ve created a list below listing the most common rationalizations (excuses) I hear from CEOs when it comes to engaging in social media, and I’ve also stated the opposing argument for your consideration.

Excuse #1: I don’t have the time.
Opposing View: You don’t have the time not to We’re all busy, but saying you don’t have time to engage in real time with stakeholders doesn’t sound like good leadership to me. Why be behind the communication curve when it’s so easy to be out in front of it.

Excuse #2: It could damage our brand.
Opposing View: A lack of engagement is what will damage your brand – Whether it’s employees, shareholders, capital markets providers, public policy interests, board members, partners, suppliers, or vendors, they all want access, transparency, and accountability – not a lack thereof. The most damaging thing to any brand is to be in stealth mode. Not engaging is the fastest path to irrelevance and ultimately, obsolescence.

Excuse #3: Legal doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
Opposing View: Legal never believes anything new is a good idea – Who is in charge? Is it you or your legal counsel? The reality is attorneys get paid to manage risk – not opportunity. How many times over the course of your career has legal tried to kill forward progress where you have pressed ahead? Why should this be any different?

Okay Mike, but what about the business case? Is social media a profitable endeavor? In a word, yes. Numerous case studies exist that support social media use for executive outreach, sales, marketing, branding, talent management, customer service, technical support, crisis management, and other initiatives. That said, I’d be less than fair if I didn’t add the following caveat: Only properly planned and implemented social media initiatives are profitable. Many companies have experienced flawed implementations, but that’s not a sign the medium is troubled. Rather it’s a sign of poor strategy and/or tactical execution.

So, will you or won’t you? I welcome your thoughts and observations.