Why Senior Leaders Can’t Afford to Ignore Social Media

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about management and leadership and social media. And I’m thinking about this in the context of the world I inhabit most of the time, that of the public and voluntary sectors. I know a number of senior managers and leaders who are great on social media, but I also know a lot of people who are still complaining that their access to social media and other useful tools is restricted in the workplace. More than 10 years after social media use first became widespread, there are still a large number of organisations either not taking it seriously or blocking it.

This is a really important issue in today’s networked world. Social media and other new technologies have changed the world of work for most people. They have caused organisations to work in more open and collaborative ways, they have flattened hierarchies, and they have allowed like-minded individuals to find and connect with each other to pursue common goals. But, there are still organisations who are oblivious to these changes, or who are actively resisting them. This is bad for their organisations for a number of reasons:

  • People are using digital tools in their private lives and they expect similar experiences when they go to work;
  • Organisations not using modern tools risk being outflanked by those that are;
  • Deploying social media and modern digital tools makes work more interesting and fulfilling, meaning staff are more likely to stay with the organisation, be committed to its vision, and produce better work.

So, what does this mean for senior managers and leaders? Well, surely that point about flattened hierarchies is some kind of threat isn’t it? Maybe not, considering that organisations are indeed changing. The fact that social media in particular allows leaders to tap into knowledge, expertise, and enthusiasm wherever it exists in the organisation has to be an opportunity.

And it is certainly true now (possibly more than ever before), that leadership and status are not necessarily correlated. What social media has definitely done is to highlight where the thinkers, the innovators and the change makers are in organisations and make them visible to the outside world. These kinds of people are not always at senior positions in the hierarchy.  There have been far too many examples where such people have been frustrated that their ideas have not been taken up, and they have subsequently left the organisation, in many cases to establish their own startup companies. One of the key challenges for leaders in the second decade of the 21st Century is to provide opportunities for all staff to contribute to the mission, feel valued, and understand that they have opportunities to progress. Even organisations which ban staff access to social media need to be aware that this is not a foolproof strategy for suppressing criticism, as staff are quite capable of communicating via their smartphones, or in their own time outside work. It is thus far better to offer opportunities for people to make their contributions as part of their work rather than outside it.

I maintain, therefore, that we are no longer in a world where status automatically begats respect as a leader. That respect has to be earned. If you are in a senior position in a large organisation, how do people who work in it, who may never meet you, or do so rarely, get to know you, and work out whether you are deserving in their trust as a leader? We all know that “management by walking about” is a good strategy, but, when the organisation is above a certain size, that may not be practical. This is where social media is your friend. Developing a good social media profile can bring you closer to your staff, as well as enabling you to make those contacts which tap into knowledge and expertise which doesn’t reach you through the usual channels which exist in hierarchies. If you want an example of how this can work, have a look at the public profile of someone like Sir Richard Branson who has been extraordinarily successful in a range of different business spheres, but has managed to maintain his “nice guy” image. Branson is a living embodiment of the power of public relations, and it pays to be aware that good relations internally within an organisation are at least as important as those with external bodies and individuals.

The openness afforded by social media has transformed what it means to be a leader in the modern workplace. But, if you are not already active on social media platforms it can feel like a scary place to venture in to. Because there is no deference on social media. If you are starting from scratch, you have zero followers, and people used to being listened to by virtue of their status in the hierarchy can feel this is like starting out all over again. But the things to remember about social media are:

  • It is a slow burner, and you need to build profile and reputation over time;
  • You can use it to connect with peers in other organisations who have already been there and done it;
  • Unless you are a celebrity, a politician, or someone who deliberate courts controversy and offence, social media tends to be a friendly place, full of helpful people (that’s certainly been my experience over the last 10 years).

A high profile on social media is an essential part of any manager’s toolkit in the current climate. If I can help you on develop your practice in this area, please get in touch

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