Social Leadership: Are We There Yet?

06/03/2015 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

This article is co-authored by Dorie Clark and Zen Yinger.

Over the past few years, the use of social media has ceased to be seen as "cutting edge" or "innovative," and has simply become a core part of how companies communicate and do business. In our recent interview with Mark Babbitt and Ted Coiné, authors of the popular business management book A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, they discussed what success looks like for companies today when it comes to social media. You no longer get credit for trying or simply having a presence on a social platform; it's time for companies to take engagement to the next level. Here are Babbitt and Coiné's best insights on how to thrive in an online, interconnected world.

Has the age of the social leader arrived? If not, how do we get there?

Ted: 2015 isn't going to be a game changer for social. It is a line of demarcation for leaders and their companies. By January 2016, any leader who is not actively engaged on social will officially be a laggard, a late adopter. In 2014, for instance, content marketing (or "social selling" or "inbound marketing") crossed a threshold, where it went from being new and exciting to quite mainstream -- due to its unrivalled effectiveness. Many companies with no social presence or a token commitment suddenly started taking social seriously. And many leaders had someone representing them on social.

Mark: We're very much in 'Phase II' of social media adoption. In Phase I, it was considered enough to just "be" on social; it was okay to use social as a broadcast tool. In Phase II, we expect more from brands. We expect them to engage and provide us value; so for even those companies already in social, 2015 is a year of transition. It's a year to get social right.

Are global businesses transforming to align themselves to the Social Age?

Mark: This transformation is already happening. Globally, leaders and companies are learning to ask better questions; they're becoming active listeners. They are crowdsourcing knowledge and sharing what they learn. And they are already seeing examples of how a single act, stance or tweet can affect the fortune of the entire company. Target Corporation, for example, has seen both the negative (a revolt against Black Friday creep) and positive (the "clip-on tie" experience) side of employees leading without a title... or permission.

Why are so many business leaders still anxious and hesitant to join the Social Age?

Mark: Fear. Fear of losing control. Leaders, for many decades now, have gotten used to being in control. They controlled what consumers thought of their brands, how employees performed their work and -how the public perceived their organization. Now, those leaders have to be transparent? Sincere? Likeable? For many leaders - that is an unimaginable reality.

Give us an example of how a Fortune 500 CEO has benefited from social media or from building social media based relationships?

Mark: One of our favorite examples of a CEO taking full advantage of social media is an old-schooler, John Mackey of Whole Foods. Even before social media, Whole Foods was well known for a commitment to sustainable food harvesting, humane treatment of animals, support of charities, and their focus on service and good corporate citizenship.

With this amazing reputation, it is no surprise that Whole Foods also excels with their corporate and local social presence. Three years ago, Mackey built a social listening team dedicated to responding to customer questions as well as complaints and praise. They also trained personnel in their more than 500 stores how to respond to local customer service issues via social and mobile. By educating their customers on the effects of foods altered by genetically modified organism, they became beacons of social responsibility. Whole Foods has done more than just hiring a community manager and building a social media team. Mackey integrated social into every possible aspect of the business. And the results - both for his personal and corporate brands - are phenomenal.

What are your top three tips for business leaders to be successful at social or in the Social Age?

Ted: First, to be successful on social media- use social media to be social, or as we say in A World Gone Social: "More Social. Less Media." Use social to have conversations with your employees, with current and prospective customers, and with the random, often fascinating people who social brings your way.

Second, hire only the most talented people, and then trust them to make the good decisions you hired them to make. With these desirable and trusted workers, your organization can become as agile and nimble as a garage startup. Making quicker decisions and taking small, survivable risks.

Third, make sure your employees - all of them - are taught how to leverage social effectively, then encouraged to do so. The most effective organizations of today are highly permeable, with good people and ideas coming in, out, and through in a constant, vibrant mix.

Ask yourself, are we going to be a lumbering citadel like Kodak, or are we going to be nimble like the Virgin Group: roughly 400 companies strong, with an average headcount of just 125?

How do you encourage the well-entrenched naysayers to enter the social age? What made you join?

Mark: My spark was a one-hour Twitter chat. In 60 minutes, I met 200 influencers I would have never met otherwise. From there, I've gone on to meet partners, vendors, board members, customers, employees and so much more - all on social. As for the naysayers, we take the approach of a mentor. We provide examples of leaders, from an ambitious intern to C-suite executives, who have changed an organization with a social mindset. And we do love it when the light bulb goes off and the "Ah-ha" moments come.

But we also know that it took almost three decades for the economy to move from the Agricultural Age to Industrial Age. And we know that moving to social will take some time - perhaps a generation.

Why do you consider A World Gone Social more of a business book than a book on social media?

Mark: Our book is not a book on social media, but a look at the impact social media has had on how business is run. How the balance of power - in a very short time - has shifted to the consumer and employee. And hopefully, the book inspires the reader - regardless of generation, title or years of experience -- to lead, even without permission. See a problem. Get the right people in the right room at the right time. Find the solution.

Ted: Above all else, A World Gone Social is a leadership book. Social media is the catalyst that changed everything, yes. But by itself, social isn't that interesting. It's how leaders must now adapt their entire mindsets that fascinates us, not how to conduct an effective Facebook ad campaign.

Zen Yinger is President of ZenSocial LLC, Social Media Strategist & Brand
Management Consultant. She creates meaningful connections between
brands and communities to optimize their digital footprint. Connect with her on Twitter @zenyinger via email at

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook and follow her on Twitter.