THE BLOG
10/28/2014 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Are You a Social CEO?

Richard Branson lives large on social media, weaving stories about a life lived on the edge in <140 characters. Jack Dorsey tweets of past presidents, music and business wisdom filtered through poets and writers. Elon Musk narrates rocket launches and provides matter-of-fact commentary on innovation. But the C-suite at HP, Oracle, GE and many other companies has largely been silent on Twitter, LinkedIn and other widely-accessible social media channels. Why, when it would appear social media has changed the rules of communication, would a leader be silent? Hasn't social media rewritten the rules of leadership? It's arguably lowered barriers to communication, connected us near-real time, revolutionized hiring and altered the company-to-customer relationship. Internally, it has redefined communication and collaboration. It has made business social.

And it's increased the risk and rewards of being social. As attention spans wither and society moves away from long-form novels, news, marketing materials, even advertising, businesses are being forced to swim with the tide. There's no reasonable assurance that investment in social will yield returns a Board will accept, and little reason to expose a CEO to the often-fast paced, sometimes aggrieved world of social "wild west" -- but there's no turning back.

Attention, Intention and Retention

Perhaps the problem is we're looking for ROI when we should be looking for a pulse and for some form of humanity. It's early days to tie an executive's social profile to sales, although the tools are there to begin. Where social makes sense for the C level today is in its ability to affect three things -- Attention, Intention and Retention.

Attention = The heartbeat of social media.
People are out there for a reason: they want to be heard, some rather desperately, while maintaining the lowest coefficient of friction. They want to be heard now, and they want it to be easy -- easier than shaking a hand while looking someone in the eye. Which is fine, for most people. CEOs are a different matter. They get plenty of attention -- from investors, the Board, their direct reports, employees, partners and competitors. Do they really need the attention of the Twitterverse? I'd say it depends what stage company you're running. If you're in an early-stage hot tech startup, building mobile apps, video games, big data aggregation tools and the like, then yes, to some degree you should have a social profile. You shouldn't be on Twitter all the time if it's not being true to your wants, but six to 10 blog posts and a few retweets of other influencers in your sector, with commentary, will be sufficient. If you're a private company with a few rounds of funding, building to a liquidity event, in an established market, the pressure to be social may seem less.

Yet this may be the time for CEOs to be more active, targeting influencers, investors and thought leaders in your industry. Visibility is critical. If you can't do it yourself, get help from an insider. If you can't deal with Twitter start blogging and have your communications team handle the other social channels. If you're in an established public company you should have trusted lieutenants listening to social channels and helping to craft social content. Think of social as one place where your leadership style can be communicated to shareholders in a direct and conversational way. It can be a proof point that you're tuned in not only to the business's big issues but shareholder issues. It's all about staying flexible with change.

Intention = Increasingly, social content is affecting purchasing and brand decisions. Companies and CEOs which aren't attuned to corporate reputation on social channels risk committing brand suicide. Instead, leaders can use social channels to influence and align with consumer intent. Consumers are increasingly empowered to meter their interaction with brands; social is a powerful tool to create demand, bolster reputation and nurture intent to buy.

Retention = Your employees are on social media, at home and at work. Their view of your company will be affected by its online footprint. Use social to connect and build confidence with employees and potential hires; it delivers information, which can be filtered for relevance; it keeps you up-to-the minute on trends in your industry and the culture at large; it creates a global hiring pool, making your organization a talent magnet; it facilitates collaboration; it creates voluntary transparency; and it humanizes your organization and your brand, building a bond that will increase opportunity and allow you to weather challenges. Finally, be ready to respond. The great beauty and power of social media is that it's interactive, which builds community and buy-in. People will be commenting on what you say. Which is a great thing because, when it works, a comment sparks an idea that sparks an insight that sparks action. One of your jobs as leader is to encourage and nurture this exciting dialogue. So be ready. Also be ready for negative feedback. How you handle it says a lot about your leadership skills. Constructive criticism is a great thing, it makes us better. There will also be snarky comments from people who have a chip on their shoulder. Never ever let people get under your skin. Stay focused on the big picture of what you're trying to accomplish, which is community-building, engagement and results.

Most social media neophytes I work with find the initial commitment the hardest step to take. The right mindset going in is crucial. I always ask them not to think of social media as an arduous chore, but as a friend and ally, a partner in the quest for innovation, progress and profits. Be human as a leader. It's time.