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Leadership and Transparency 2015: The Social Media Imperative

5496634282_880170cfc3_zBy the time “trends” get mentioned in the new year forecast blog posts, they can be little more “old” than “news.” Though forward motion is always worth celebrating, change usually happens more slowly. Take, for example, the call for more transparency in business leadership. While today’s startups are more likely to intentionally bake this into their corporate DNA, 100+ year old companies have a lot more embedded business culture to counter.

Still, no matter the corporation’s size or embedded culture, the imperative of transparency really is, to be festive about it, “nipping at their toes.” Stakeholders and governing bodies require regular reporting on natural resource use, and accounting and legal issues, to name a few. The general public likely has interest in much more. The unique opportunity I see heading into 2015 is this: developing more social media-engaged leaders to embody that transparency.

Transparency As The Rule

“The currency of leadership is transparency,” as a recent piece in The Economist quoting Starbucks’ Howard Schultz reminded us. And, it is true. Companies can choose how to use that currency for themselves.

But, at this point, there really is no choice about whether to be transparent. Anyone with access to social media can see what is going on in most corporations (good and bad). So, companies have to be ready. While some will choose the proactive and authentic approach, using business missteps as lessons to be shared – and learned from – along the way. Other companies, with a more embedded and opaque culture might continue with a more “wait and see” reactive approach, hoping against hope that their various transgressions will go unnoticed.

Either proactive or reactive can be a short term solution, but only bold, intentional transparency will succeed over the long term. If a company honestly pursues solutions and engages with stakeholders toward moving sustainability and social responsibility forward, for example, it will create a deep, trust-building foundation. Relying mainly on transparency constructs like the well-worded press release, splashy marketing campaign or grand philanthropic gesture, however, won’t produce enough transparent substance to survive scrutiny.

Executive Leadership As The Key

While today’s business and consumer markets have both become a lot savvier in, and suspicious of, the usual marketing and cause efforts, corporate leaders who are comfortable in the public eye and can build person-to-person trust are 2015’s “secret weapon.” Getting out from behind that Wizard of Oz corporate curtain and communicating in human-scale is what matters.

Especially in the business-to-business (B2B) realm, the authentic accessibility of leaders is worth the time and effort. The idea is that, by making sure a business leaders is comfortable using social media, any interested party – whether employee, investor, vendor or general public member – should be able to develop a better “sense” of what that person stands for, what they are passionate about and how that reflects on his or her corporate affiliation. Whatever methods are used (speaking gigs, writing, or social media engagement, for example), the proactive efforts to develop some online archive of content or personal digital profile contributes to that foundation of trust. And that, either separately or in combination with more traditional marketing and communications efforts, can have major impact.

Social Media As The Tool

Speaking of being proactive, social media might be the most effective – albeit still surprisingly under-used – tool of them all. To be clear: I am not referring to the business-to-consumer (B2C), brand marketing type of social media, but the human being- connecting type of social media engagement.

In business leadership, the more truly “known” individual leaders can become, the more their social media conversations will help elevate and amplify industry developments, cross-sector thinking and global change. Using social media, leaders can more fluidly share what their companies are up to, more easily form new collaborations and more productively engage with the communities, employees, vendors and investors. It’s about building social capital before there becomes reason to need it.

Transparency Won’t Wait Until 2016

Not surprisingly, companies continue to hedge their bets about the professional social media practices of their leaders, and that gets them no closer to its transparency-enhancing possibilities. Press releases, web site copy, conference presentations and any other such content or marketing collateral – in and of itself – pale in comparison to seeing what, say, executives like Apple’s Angela Ahrendts or Tangerine Bank CEO, Peter Aceto, are sharing and talking about (and with whom) on Twitter.

By the end of 2014, even Boards of Directors had started to understand the importance of social media savvy in CEOs, as Ted Coine and Mark Babbitt wrote in their December 4, 2014, Harvard Business Review piece:

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.

For those professionals who do dive into social media, learning this new relationship building and thought leadership tool can become a very personally rewarding practice too. But, there is no carefully choreographed communications team-managed way to get up to speed. It takes individual interest and commitment to truly do its transparency power justice.

The socially savvy leaders I’ve known and/or coached over the past few years have taken social media on for their own professional development, with no major agenda otherwise. (But, it has only helped make the jobs of their company’s marketing and communications teams easier). Through their experiences, these women and men have observed things like the following:

  • They can’t believe how fun and rewarding it is.
  • It has helped them discover information they’d otherwise have missed.
  • They now look forward to conferences and public appearance obligations, because that’s where their social media relationships tend to become real life business friendships.
  • They are surprised by how quickly they’ve realized social media’s benefits, but they are also surprised by how few of their competitive peers have joined in.

Leading with transparency involves a feedback loop, where what comes into the exchange is as important as what goes out.  The insights discovered or connections made feed the corporate reports or information shared, and vice versa.  Business leaders who brave social media participation as their authentic selves make the best conduits for such interaction. And, THEY are the ones who will make the biggest difference for corporate transparency in 2015.

This article first published in HuffingtonPost, January 5, 2015.

Special thanks to Farrukh for use of the image.