Pick a Little, Talk a Little

In January, I posted a blog on the growing desire among many people for content that is deeper and richer than 140 characters. Although social media is here to stay and the preferred method for news and information gathering, it is still in its relative infancy. Yet there are signs that it is maturing into a credible communication tool, most notably among leaders.

Back in 2013, the global consultancy McKinsey published an article in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “The Six Social Media Skills Every Leaders Needs.”  I remember the rush to integrate social media tools into senior leaders’ repertoire starting in 2010. Leaders needed to blog, use internal platforms like Yammer and venture into external tweeting or posting through corporate provisioned social media accounts. The idea was to appear current to ensure market relevancy while experimenting with a powerful new medium. In their report, McKinsey nailed the inherent tension at the time: “What’s more, there’s a mismatch between the logic of participatory media and the still-reigning 20th-century model of management and organizations, with its emphasis on linear processes and control. Social media encourages horizontal collaboration and unscripted conversations that travel in random paths across management hierarchies. It thereby short-circuits established power dynamics and traditional lines of communication.”

Yes. The technology was disruptive in nature, breaking down established hierarchical lines of information flow. In the year 2000, a senior leader might expect to hear an uncomfortable question at a Town Hall meeting, but he would never expect that question to be instantly broadcast, resent and commented on by others before he had a chance to reply. Roughly ten years later this was no longer a comfortable assumption. The McKinsey report additional noted that social media use contains “an organizational dimension: leaders must cultivate a new, technologically linked social infrastructure that by design promotes constant interaction across physical and geographical boundaries, as well as self-organized discourse and exchange.” In other words, leaders are challenged to lead traditional, structurally hierarchical organizations whose new level of discourse and interaction is not necessarily bound by hierarchy. Every employee can have his or her say but it remains at the feet of leaders to do something about it.

Which leads me to the question of where we are today. Have leaders and organizations learned to use social media skillfully this past half decade? Or is it churning more trouble than benefit? The answer is positive. Social media use and impact are much better than they were a few years ago. The marketing and PR firm Weber Shandwick published a report in 2016 about leadership communication. It found that leaders had embraced social media internally and, notably, externally. Over 66% of CEOs at top companies were actively engaged, an increase of 30% from two years prior. These leaders are smart and strategic in their use of social media as well, combining text and video across key business platforms to promote products, communicate earnings activities and connect with customers during periods of stress. More than any other methodology to humanize leaders among broad stakeholder groups, social media used smartly has personalized leaders.

And in a boon to the impact of women in leadership roles, the Weber Shandwick report found that women are highly engaged in social media; 76% of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women are active, a level much higher than their male counterparts.

Ultimately, the marriage of technology and leadership communication is a solid one, and many leaders are further expanding their social media imprint. What’s more, this new leadership skill is not solely the providence of those in C-suite. Any leader at any level can use social media strategically. Here are a few elements to consider:

  • Ensure  there is intent and strategy behind your usage. All social media is not equal. Posting pictures of your pet for the benefit of your uncle in Hawaii is one thing. Building a reputation as a business leader is another.
  • Use platforms that make sense for your industry and profession. LinkedIn is a logical first choice and it has many great tools for posting and repurposing content.
  • Consider creating a Twitter account for your business or one that is primarily for professional use. (i.e., not all social media use is equal).
  • Most important, be clear about what you put out there, and why. You are creating a history of your activities and opinions, a powerful history that outlives your current job or interests. Much like brand strategy, your social media use is an element of your reputation.

While still a new leadership skill, the cultivation of a sound social media voice is worth considering at any stage in one’s career. Even though many of our organizations remain fundamentally hierarchical, the ability to shape one’s leadership bona fides with a few well-placed tweets is priceless.


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