By Ted Coiné & Mark Babbitt
Peter Aceto, the CEO of Tangerine, recently said in The Globe and Mail, “I would rather engage in a Twitter conversation with a single customer than see our company attempt to attract the attention of millions in a coveted Superbowl commercial.”
This is the preference of a truly social CEO. Unfortunately, chief executives that embrace and understand the promise of social media are rare, so rare that we call them “blue unicorns” in our book, A World Gone Social. Why blue unicorns? Because CEOs that embrace social as much as leaders like Aceto are still so uncommon that we aren’t just looking for any unicorn, we’re looking for a specific color of unicorn.
Five years ago, when boards were searching for a leader, social media competency wasn’t even on the radar. Now, according to the board members and CEOs we interviewed for our book, a strong social presence is often high on the list of factors they consider when vetting CEO candidates.
And five years from now? With the positive aspects of being a social CEO routinely splashed across the business pages, social fluency will likely be on almost every board’s list of must-have leadership skills. Already, given a choice between similarly strong candidates — one with an impressive social presence, the other without – the choice is easy: boards increasingly prefer the modern leader.
According to recent research conducted by Domo, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have a presence on at least one social channel. And on paper, especially considering the Social Age is only six years old, 3 in 10 may not seem too bad a ratio. But even these so-called “social CEOs” aren’t that social.
A quick glance at their activity on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter shows:
- The vast majority is using social media as a broadcast channel — a digital billboard to hawk their company’s products and services — not as a way to connect.
- For those who appear to be attempting to engage, their social activity feels impersonal and generic, as if a junior member of the marketing team is managing their social accounts and speaking for them. Of course, the CEOs who approach social in this manner are missing the point entirely.
So how do we know that a CEO is actually — personally — engaging on social media? What attributes do we recognize in truly social CEOs like Richard Branson, Pete Cashmore, Arianna Huffington and Peter Aceto? Here are the top seven traits we’ve observed over the five years we spent trend-watching and interviewing leaders:
- They Have an Insatiable Curiosity
Truly social CEOs are deeply curious. And that curiosity leads them to wonder, “What are people saying about our company? Our competitors? About their wants, needs, and aspirations that no one is fulfilling right now?” Many social CEOs are first drawn to social to listen. After all, there is no better way than social to collect real-time market intelligence, both through social monitoring and engaging followers.
- They Have a DIY Mindset
The same CEOs who look up information on Google rather than asking an assistant to do it are flocking to social. They don’t want to hear input from customers filtered through 13 layers of management. They don’t want to see a summary report on employee morale or customer satisfaction. They want their input raw and without any manipulation.
- They Have a “Bias for Action”
In 1982, we learned from Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their book, In Search of Excellence, about how the best leaders had “a bias for action.” They live by a “ready, fire, aim” mentality and in the Social Age, this has never been more necessary – the 24/7 social conversation waits for no focus group or budget cycle. Sure, the marketing team supports their activity; they may even have a person dedicated to social monitoring of their accounts. But when the situation or sense of urgency dictates, they aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. Just watch truly social CEOs like Basecamp’s Jason Fried and Havas Media’s Paul Frampton: they’re often online, live, in the moment, and thus ready to respond and engage in real time.
- They Are Relentless Givers
Many social CEOs aren’t social just because they have a company to run; they see value in being social in every aspect of their lives. They care about more than the bottom line. They give back, they mentor, and they care about realsocial issues that have nothing to do with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. We refer to those who act consistently in a collaborative, generous way as “relentless givers.” They constantly share what they know, connect others and — often for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do — they do good. One standout example is OCLC’s Skip Prichard, who blogs on leadership and shares insights from his favorite authors – often with no direct benefit to him or his organization.
- They Connect Instead of Promote
Want to spot an antisocial CEO? Read what they’re sharing on social media. Are they spreading the good word about their company while also interacting with others, from famous influencers to humble social newcomers? Or is their feed clearly a spigot of self-promotion? Are they answering questions from concerned stakeholders? Or are they only saying what investors want to hear? Social CEOs put down the digital megaphone and they build relationships.
- They’re the Company’s No. 1 Brand Ambassador
We have always looked to the boss as the face of the company. We admire the leaders whose brands, both personal and corporate, are led responsibly – and revile those whose company is seen as autocratic, self-serving and non-caring. As goes the personal brand of a CEO, so goes the brand. A study by Weber Shandwick backs up this observation: About two-thirds of customers say their perception of a CEO directly impacts their perception of the company. Social CEOs are building their personal brand whenever they engage on social media, and when they do it in an authentic and generous way, they’re also improving the company brand.
- They Lead with an OPEN Mindset
“OPEN” – short for Ordinary People, Extraordinary Network – means that no one person, even the highest-level leader, can have all the answers. Instead, we deliberately build personal relationships with those willing to help us discover the answers, together. Whether it’s managing a crisis, or rising up to meet an opportunity, a social CEO taps into her network’s combined expertise. Embracing the concept of OPEN is perhaps the purest indicator that a leader is truly social.
Writer Kare Anderson takes OPEN to the next level as she talks routinely of mutuality and deliberately becoming an opportunity maker. She said in her recent TED talk, “Each one of us is better than anybody else at something… which disproves the popular notion that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
No leader can afford to lead as they did in the Industrial Age. This is a new era with new rules. All around us, the entire world is flattening, democratizing, and socializing. It’s quite possible that as the social age matures, there will be only two types of business leaders: social … and retired.
(This post first appeared on Harvard Business Review)