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Yes, CEOs: you WILL need to understand and engage with social media

“As I jogged down Wall Street in New York in October through the barricades, police horses, and thousands of activists, something became clear. The masses had self-organized and social media had added yet another social movement to its résumé. At the same time, something else became clear to me. Much higher than street level, in the boardrooms of America’s largest companies, social media expertise was far from entering the résumés of most C-suites.
Why is there confusion inside these glass fortresses around the world? Senior executives are struggling to get a grasp of what to do about the social opportunity for their kingdom. But hey, it’s new, right? The kids only started signing up eight years ago. ”

MICHAEL SCISSONS Fast Company (December 15, 2011)

“Social media? Kids, right? That’s where they hang out, arrange dates, all that stuff? What on earth has that got to do with my business?”

That sentence would be the reaction of many a CEO to the social media phenomenon. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google+ et al are usually dismissed as a trivial social pursuit. Surely only the very young or the very idle have time for it.

Here’s the thing, though: your staff, your customers and your competitors have plenty of time for it.

It is indeed true, much of what constitutes social media content is irredeemably trite and banal. But that is NOT all there is to it. Social media have become an essential tool of life for the online generation. Social media platforms are also where information is found, news is tracked, views are exchanged, opinions are refined, networks are grown, deals are done, careers are advanced, brands are built, reputations are polished.

Why would you not want to be part of that?

Consider this, too: social media are ALSO where brands are destroyed; where complaints about your organizations reach thousands of people in minutes; where you can gauge the reaction to your new product instantaneously.

If you’re an enlightened chief executive, you should be rubbing your hands in glee. One of the biggest problems most leaders have is getting hold of the right information. Leaders are usually separated from reality by many layers of bureaucracy. Market information passes through many minders before it reaches the boss. Courtiers prevent people with valuable insights from accessing the head honcho.

Now, simply having a (visible or invisible) Twitter account can allow a CEO to gain real-time, direct access to customer feedback. Unfiltered and unaltered. Straight from the horse’s mouth. And it’s free. Is this not leadership nirvana? Try it and see how your data are enriched daily.

In addition, many social media platforms allow you to follow experts, thinkers and news sources. They allow you to track opinion and competitor activity. They allow you to gain easy access to the knowledge you want to keep abreast of.

The social media phenomenon, like life in general, is what you make of it. It can be noisy and meaningless and trivial. It can also be a powerful tool for leadership engagement, personal awareness and keeping tabs on the world.

Sadly, many CEOs either dismiss it out of hand, or lead botched attempts to enter the social space without any clear thinking, objectives or rules of engagement. The result is the brainlessly obvious marketing and robotic customer engagement many corporates are guilty of.

Your engagement with social media is a conversation, not a brochure. It’s where things are discussed, debated, criticized, praised, rubbished, adored. To benefit from it, you have to enter the conversation without trying to control or manipulate it. Honest, open engagement is the best policy.

You can’t leave your social media engagement to a ‘department.’ In today’s and tomorrow’s world, it’s a leadership issue. It requires judgement and insight to get right, and no consultant or techie is going to do that for you.

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