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What CEOs Can Learn from Social Media About Building Their Brands

April 12, 2013

Now that social media is clearly a permanent disruption (i.e., here to stay, and making organizations and individuals reinvent themselves if they don’t want to get left behind), it’s worth paying attention to the various ways its precepts can inform professional development, organizational leadership and personal branding. Business “best practices” that have been in use since our economy was in the industrial age are simply not the best anymore. Instead, they’re becoming less and less compatible with today’s complex, global and increasingly social world.

Behavior and management experts Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter have been studying the intersection of social media and leadership for several years. Their big idea has been the “social organization”: an acknowledgment that social media hasn’t only changed communications strategies but also is continually challenging some of the tried-and-true principles of organizational leadership, structure, process, behavior and branding.

Their book Humanize: How People-Centric Institutions Thrive in a Social World, emphasizes the increasing importance of individuals in an age in which people buy from people (or at least like to think they do) rather than companies. The authors’ take on professional development and personal branding are rooted in the principles of social media—not daily posts or engagements with followers or fans, but the human components behind the social phenomenon.

Their argument is that by innovating management—making it more human and less mechanical—leaders can become more agile and build real engagement with their workforce, thereby increasing their ability to withstand and manage disruption. Grant and Notter have created a 15-minute online assessment that offers leaders an immediate custom analysis of how human their organizations already work.

Last fall, the authors conducted a survey of 505 individuals in order to understand current perspectives about how social media is used in organizations, particularly related to leadership. The respondents were unusually advanced in their SoMe use, with about 85 percent saying they can participate on social media in their own voice, that their company understands the importance of participating in social media and maintaining an online corporate identity, and that their organization uses social media to connect with people, not just promote products and services.

Grant and Notter found that survey respondents felt it is important for corporate leaders to be involved in social media. Although it was a little ambiguous what constitutes “involvement,” 84 percent said that leadership involvement gives their company a competitive edge. A mere 4 percent said a leader’s social media involvement should be limited to crisis situations.

Yet 45 percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they are concerned about the lack of social media involvement among leaders at their organization. Clearly, any CEO who wants to enhance his or her personal brand inside or outside the organization would be wise to step up their social media game.

Most interesting to me from the survey is the traits people find most desirable in a leader. Grant and Notter’s list of 12 leadership traits (from which respondents could pick four) included six from the old model of command-and-control leadership (providing clear direction, being a brilliant strategist, leveraging best practices, being charismatic, holding people accountable and commanding loyalty from employees), and six from the new school of thought they outline in Humanize (embracing change, valuing experimentation and failure, being open to diverse perspectives, being transparent and sharing information freely, being comfortable with conflict, and participating on social media in his/her own voice).

Here’s how it played out (answers in bold are the new-world traits):

Provides clear direction: 76 percent
Embraces change: 65 percent
Transparent, shares information freely: 59 percent
Values experimentation and even failure: 59 percent
Open to diverse perspectives: 52 percent

Holds people accountable: 42 percent
Comfortable with conflict: 33 percent
Brilliant strategist: 31 percent
Leverages best practices: 28 percent
Participates on social media in his/her own voice: 21 percent
Charismatic: 21 percent
Commands loyalty from employees: 18 percent

The response to “participates in social media in his/her own voice” (21 percent chose it as their top four, but it’s third from the bottom overall) shows that people aren’t looking for a leader who is constantly tweeting or blogging. Nor should they be. But it turns out that what they are looking for are attributes that are very much in line with social media values: clarity, transparency, boldness, open to change. People are thinking about leadership very differently in our connected world.

What a shift from even five years ago. Social media is truly influencing the ways organizations should be run and how corporate leaders should be defining their personal brands. Employees—and other stakeholders—are expecting more openness. The smart leaders now are those who understand that “leadership” has different, less hierarchical meanings than it used to. They’re the people who can define themselves as fully human and are fully aware of what it means to be a successful leader today.


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