Monday, June 17, 2013

The Leadership Imperative of Social Media

I presented at a conference, and joked that while a friend had over 500 friends on Facebook, I had just eight to speak of.  One friend invited me to join, several months before, and I might have sketched a profile at the time, but otherwise paid little attention to it.  That was in September 2008, and it was a year later before I took serious note, found it intriguing, and worked at building my friends list.       

So four years running now, on social media, and it's been a slowly evolving effort, not just to befriend and connect, but also to grasp it and get into a rhythm with it.  I resolved early on that I would be an active participant as well as a thoughtful learner.  I wanted to socialize inside the house, so to speak, and also step outside, peer inside the windows, and gaze at the entirety of the house.

My personal story is the backdrop from which I discuss a must-read article from McKinsey:  Six social-media skills every leader needs.  The title may sound like a lightweight how-to guidepost for the casual individual, but this is a duly-weighed piece that speaks directly to executives and managers.  Authors Roland Deiser and Sylvian Newton offer this graphic to summarize their social media framework, and I comment on each of those six skills, plus offer suggestions for acquiring them.

To thrive in the world of social media, leaders need to acquire a mind-set of openness and imperfection, and they must have the courage to appear “raw” and unpolished—traits that may be as challenging for them as developing the creative and technical-production skills.
Deiser and Newton make it sound more daunting than it actually is, especially when they allude to auteur filmmaking skills, but creating a video is relatively easy.  Available smartphones and tablets have user-friendly capabilities, and there are editing tools that are quite manageable.

Instead, the more challenging effort for CEOs may be reconciling the polish of a corporate video with the imperfection of a self-made video.  Somewhere in between lies the comfort zone for each of them.  On the one hand, a professionally-created video is apropos for formal presentations and ad campaigns, but it may impress some audiences as disingenuous.  On the other hand, an obviously crude creation leaves the CEO dissatisfied, if not disgusted.  Yet, a naturally-delivered, honestly-presented video, for example, with the occasional stumbles in speech, may just be what your audience gravitates to.

So, besides finding your comfort zone, clarifying your purpose and determining the likes of your target audience are crucial.  Practice makes perfect, indeed.  Giving it a try, if you haven't yet, by first experimenting on videos that you keep private, to start with, is a way to build up skill and comfort.  If you have children who are savvy with media and technology, requesting "reverse mentoring" from them is another way to go.  A channel on YouTube like Filmmaker IQ is chock-full of video ideas, tutorials and examples, so be sure to have a look and to study up.  Finally, keep in mind that videos is just one type of content:  articles, slides and conversations are other examples as well.

Distribution competence—the ability to influence the way messages move through complex organizations—becomes as important as the ability to create compelling content.
There is a dialectic between the content you create and the means with which you distribute that content.  Deiser and Newton are right to point out that the distribution methods at our disposal can help us decide what content to create.  For example, I know that YouTube has thousands of soundtracks to choose from, when I upload any video.  The fact that I can make my content more compelling via this social media, for example, has given me a wider stretch of ideas on videos I can create.

But the truth is, we have such a wide variety of distribution methods to choose from, that I concern myself less with how I will present my content and more with what I will create.  So while it is an imperative to gain distribution competence, I suggest that you think first about what you want to accomplish and consider the content you ought to create vis-a-vis that aim.  More than likely, the optimal methods to disseminate this content is available to you.

Deiser and Newton emphasize that people populate social media and altogether make for a storehouse  of knowledge, support and influence.  How you engage them, and enlist their involvement in your content creation and distribution, matters a great deal.  Many among us may speak to a before-internet era when command-and-control was in vogue in organizations.  But I question how much command-and-control leaders actually had, back then.  Effective leadership is fundamentally about respect, care and persuasion.  So whether it's a bygone faux control era, or a social media landscape, it is these people provisions that define our leadership.      

“You have to see the entire communication universe, the interplay of traditional and social media,” says Bill Ruh, head of GE’s Software and Analytics Center. Just as leaders suffer from overflow, so do their people. “As a leader,” says Ruh, “you have to develop empathy for the various channels and the way people consume information.”
If you're a CEO, or one of the top-most executives, then your horizons are already wide.  You have a big-picture view of information and communications in your company, but at any given moment you can drink just a glass of water at a time but are given the volume of an ocean, it seems.  For me, there is a zen to this.  What do I mean?

Consider that Facebook has one billion members, and LinkedIn 200 million colleagues.  There is a Timeline and Newsfeed of updates, articles and events within each of these universes.  As phenomenal of a technology as these platforms are, they are grossly limited in how much information it can present to us at any given time.  This limitation is of course mirrored by our own, that is, our very finite capacity to consume such information.  We can spend every single waking moment in front of the computer or on the smartphone and tablet, and we will come across, never mind process, only a small fraction of that ocean volume.

Zen means realizing and accepting our elemental limitation.  It means not stressing over it, and relaxing and centering ourselves, instead, on this very reality.  The information flow is not uniformly rapid or overwhelming.  In fact that flow varies from one site to the other.  In my experience, for example, my LinkedIn Newsfeed "moves" slower than my Twitter Timeline (which is more like a stock ticker-tape).  So I can reflect more on LinkedIn content, and I can spend more time deciding what to respond to and what to post on.  On Twitter, I've learned to be quicker in this decision-making.

It's difficult, indeed, to get a grip on this information overflow, if we aren't fundamentally at zen.  So I propose the first steps have much less to do with information or communication, ironically, but much more with our state of mind, our purpose and preferences.  Once at zen, then, you have plenty of advice, support and tools are your disposal to help you.  In time, the ocean becomes a refreshing swim, as opposed to an overwhelming drink that drowns you.

(image credit)

“The type of leadership we need finds its full expression in the DNA of collaborative technology, and I am determined to leverage this DNA as much as I can.”
To achieve this goal, leaders must become tutors and strategic orchestrators of all social-media activities within their control, including the establishment of new roles that support the logic of networked communication.
Needless to say, for CEOs to become an adviser and tutor in social media, they must be duly schooled and verse in it.  They don't have to experts in this field, of course, but they have to be so knowledgeable as to be credible in a role that Deiser and Newton emphasize.  Having personal, active experience on any one or more of the primary sites - Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, for example - is crucial, I'd say.  Even if the CEO is new to the game, he or she must commit to a steady learning and experience process for the long haul.

On the issue of collaborative technology, let me share an experience.  I was the project manager for our major clients in the Middle East, when I worked for an international consulting firm.  As an extravert, I found pleasure in meeting new colleagues across the world, from Minneapolis and Washington, DC, to London and Stockholm, to Shanghai and Melbourne.  In between client projects, we needed to prepare ourselves in unison; review our priorities, process and plans; resolve any pending issues; and keep our eyes on kaizen (continuous improvement).  Our technology?  Teleconference via phone.  By the time I left, the firm had begun to roll out videoconferencing equipment across offices, and I used it a handful of times.

Nowadays, the tools are more sophisticated and accessible.  Think free video-conferencing on Skype, on a one-to-one basis.  Think group video-conferencing on Google+ Hangouts, also at no cost.  Strong bandwidth for all parties is required, otherwise these tools can be a major aggravation.

But below the surface of org charts and process manuals we find an implicit, less manageable “informal organization,” which has always been important and now gets amplified through social media. The leader’s task is to marry vertical accountability with networked horizontal collaboration in a way that is not mutually destructive.
It's easier said than done, but getting it done vis-a-vis social media is a necessity.  Rules and responsibilities are integral to a properly-operating, meaningful and secure organization.  In a general sense, this has been an unchanging precept over time.  So setting expectations and drawing the line about the 'what,' the 'where,' and the 'who' help to minimize uncertainty or confusion on what staff can do online.

But because social media, in and of itself, is evolving phenomena, those rules and responsibilities warrant timely reviews, especially when unexpected issues or dilemmas arise.  They may warrant revisions, after careful review.  "It's an evolving thing" referred to the video that Andrew Way and his team created every quarter and shared with customers.  It could've referred perfectly to social media as a whole.

Years ago, I came up with the concept of meta-skills.  It is the skills of acquiring skills, and this is apropos now.  CEOs must truly have the meta-ability to step back, even just in their mind; examine what they're doing and how others and situations impact them; and determine what it is they need to learn, develop or figure out.  This is akin to emotional intelligence, which in part is an open-ended mindfulness and in another part a more thoughtful, analytic consideration about what's going on.

Sure, it makes sense to consult with colleagues and advisers, but CEOs must recognize that none of them can predict with full certainty how things are going to turn out:  how, for example, a new ad campaign may (or may not) get taken-up on YouTube.  We are simply limited and imperfect in our thinking, and accordingly prone to mistakes.  Hovering mindfulness and due thoughtfulness help to avoid those mistakes and to minimize and correct them when mistakes occur.  At the end of the day, each CEO must judge for himself or herself what needs to be done vis-a-vis social media.

Part of the program there involves “reverse mentoring,” which connects media-savvy millennials with senior GE leaders to discuss the latest tech buzz and practice. Many participants continue to exchange insights long after the formal session is over. Exposing seasoned leaders to the millennial mind-set encourages them to experiment with new technologies—which, in turn, helps them better engage with up and comers.
The zen of learning, understanding and staying ahead of the curve means, once again, appreciating the innate complexity of things and the limitations we face.  It means staying in the moment, fully mindful and thoughtful.  Reading articles, watching videos, and overall committing time and effort are crucial.

But here are two example of how being zen can work out practically.  All of us need our meals and breaks in the course of a business day.  So the CEO may invite a handful of their IT and millennial staff for an informal, brown-bag lunch, and talk about trends and developments in social media, device technology, and useful apps.  Also, at friends or family gathering, the CEO may amble to a small gathering of young people, and ask them something along the lines of:  What's the coolest site, device or app that they use, which hardly anyone has heard of?  This sixth social media skill is about getting a pulse on what's going on and where things are headed.

What I call an algorithm is this:  Clarify what you're trying to accomplish, even if it's something informal or small, in a social gathering.  Gather ideas about what will help accomplish that, and reformulate these accordingly, so these ideas become your own.  Determine what will work best, in light of your interests, preferences, and capabilities.

At the end of the day
No question, social media is a pivotal, even tectonic phenomenon in our lifetime.  Nonetheless, Chief Executive speaks to the paltry, unfortunate uptake among Fortune 500 CEOs:
But at the same time, that meant only 4 percent of these CEOs were on Twitter, versus 34 percent of the U.S. population that has registered on the service. And only 8 percent were on Facebook, compared with more than half of Americans. 
Those on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+ are probably the colleagues, employees, partners and clientele of said CEOs.  So to dismiss or avoid social media is to be out-of-the-loop with large sectors of those circles that matter most to them.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!  Also, if you'd like a PDF of this article, please e-mail me at

Ron Villejo, PhD

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