For C-suite executives in today’s Social Age, building a digital presence becomes a competency requirement to lead.  Here are three ways leaders can build that presence on the social web.

I understand why many C-suite executives are reluctant to embrace the Social Age. They feel as though they have served their time. They’ve clambered up the hierarchical pyramid of work. They’ve achieved success through aptitude, but also by mastering the complex rules of the corporate game. And now, at the top, these CEOs find that the game has changed.  So, many turn a Nelsonian eye to the needs of today’s volatile, and uncertain times. They cop a deaf ear to our complex and ambiguous working environments. They console themselves that social is ‘for da kidz’, or a passing fad, or look to last quarter’s financial results for reassurance that they’re steering their firms in the most effective manner.

However, whether we care to admit it out loud or not, we’ve entered a new era of business. Bureaucracies are flattening out and giving way to networks. Where once business environments were relatively simple and stable they are now dynamic and complex. Local is now global.

I’ve written before about the power of social media to help business leaders formulate strategy through active listening, fast response in a human voice and being where their customers are.

It’s the leaders who listen to social signals; those who empower their employees to do likewise who increase their firm’s capacity to spot opportunities and threats. They do so by using the social web to continually check the firm’s strategic fit with its environment.

No knives, no guns, no flip flops

In 1996 I accompanied Richard Branson on his inaugural Virgin Airways flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. We visited the township of Soweto and had a beer in a local bar. Above the entrance to this tiny drinking room swung a hand-painted sign with words: ‘No knives, no guns, no tekkies’ (flip flops) printed on it. These were the terms of admittance.

CEOs will one day, in the not-too-distant future, find that their terms of admittance to lead a company will include having a social presence. The corporate boards who hire them will look upon social as a competency requirement. Today, social for CEOs is best practice. In some quarters: a novelty. It will become tomorrow’s expectation. A basic requirement for entry to that position.

Here I offer three ways CEOs can build a digital presence.


According to a 2013 survey by information house Domo and leadership-focused nearly 70% of Fortune 500 CEOs don’t have any social media presence. In Australia a 2015 survey found four CEOs of the top 20 publicly listed companies have a Twitter account. Just two have ever Tweeted.

Have a go. Set up an account. It’ll take five minutes. The process is designed to be easy and quick. Once set up, maintain a consistent social presence. That doesn’t necessarily mean Tweeting through the day and night. But it does mean giving a direction of travel for what you believe in. What you care about. What you stand for.


Many of the 30% of CEOs who do have a social media presence leave it at a LinkedIn profile or turn their ‘personal’ Twitter account into broadcast mechanisms for their firms’ press releases and to retweet pro-company tweets. Yes, the quote marks are for emphasis because, no doubt, many of these personal accounts will be driven by interns and communications’ departments and will go nowhere near the actual CEO.

If there’s one word that sums up the Social Age, it’s engagement. Connected customers want to engage with a company that stands for something. They want to know what’s important to the brand they spend their money with. Customers and employees want to know what these companies believe in. And they want to be spoken with in a conversational voice. A human voice. Not corporate speak dreamt up the marketers or the legal department.

Customers won’t stand for being talked at and not listened to. They’ll vote with their feet and walk across the digital street to a competitor who places social at the heart of how they do business. So, listen, respond, be helpful, be human.

These social media accounts are your accounts. You can’t farm out your social presence to the marketing department or the summer intern. It’s your voice. Your thoughts. Your personality.


Open the kimono a little. Give us a glimpse of your personality. Your ambition. Your drive. But also your style. In Trust Me. PR is Dead former Edelman public relations supremo, Robert Phillips, captures the chairman’s words of one of the UK’s largest financial services firms: “We cannot compartmentalise our lives – the most fundamental virtues and principles in private and in public are in fact the same…. Life is a whole and must be approached as such.” In the Social Age there’s no longer a separation of personal brand and professional brand.

James Griffin, a director of KPMG and a specialist in social media, says the most common excuse from Australian CEOs for not being on Twitter or becoming an influencer on LinkedIn is they see it as being narcissistic.

“They don’t want to put themselves forward as they fear it will look as though it is all about their own vanity,” he told the Australian Financial Review. That’s certainly one view. Another is that CEOs don’t want to put a foot wrong.

Charlene Li, founder and CEO, Altimeter Group explains in a Forbes interview: “Most leaders feel they have to be perfect. The last thing I think people want from their leaders is perfection. What they want to know is that there’s empathy, that you understand, that you’re also vulnerable and are open to mistakes.”

We are all now connected consumers within the Social Age. Leaders must embrace the possibilities thrown up by social media. Its ability to transport leaders from their C-suite bubble to see directly what their customers and competitors truly think of their companies. To grow their networks, learning from other leaders in other industries and in other parts of the world and to meet and form relationships directly with customers where they are not to expecting them to come to them.

A version of this article appeared on 

Photo credit Zach Dischner

About Scott Guthrie

Scott Guthrie is a management consultant specialising in progressive public relations. He has more than twenty years’ experience advising leaders within the business intelligence and financial services industries. Scott believes making money by being meaningful is the only sure-fire way businesses can make meaningful money over the long term.

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