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The Digital Competence of Leaders

  • AuthorJan Shultis
  • Published Friday, March 8th, 2013
  • Comments1

Their status updates can spark investigations, as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is learning the hard way.  Their tweets can destroy reputations; ask former OMGPOP CEO Dan Porter.  But their blogs can also be thought provoking, and their Facebook posts inspiring.

CEOs are under ever-increasing pressure to be accessible, which can translate into offering a 24/7 view into the company’s business practices, corporate culture, operations and even the CEO themselves.  With such mixed results, however, how social media savvy should they personally be?

“The role of the CEO has evolved to become more visible, social, connected and accessible than ever before,” says Ann Charles, founder and CEO of BRANDFog, a New York City-based organization specializing in social media branding for leadership.  “While social media is new, the nexus between communication and leadership is not. Social media, in all its forms, empowers CEOs to improve their communications skills, deepen their connections with people inside and outside the company, and emerge as more effective leaders.”

As Charles notes, there are benefits to social media engagement: social media offers real-time talk and authentic conversation, can enhance transparency and a perception of accessibility, and encourages feedback both up and down the chain of command, or between the consumer and supplier.  Social media can encourage the development of the company as an industry leader; with increased communication, it is easier for an organization to rise above competitors and be seen as an authority.  Social media also offers a chance to tap into a silent audience, those whose opinions are shaped by watching the online dialogue without actively participating.

Social media offers valuable insight into not only what an organization does, but also how they do it.  In the modern market, business ethics are of greater interest than ever before.  Some consumers watch for signs of Wall Street shenanigans, while others only patronize businesses with values similar to their own, such as green initiatives or prolific charitable endeavors.

Despite a never-ending push by digital gurus, however, a Domo survey conducted last year found that 7 in 10 Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence on major social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Google+.

Though not a part of the Domo survey, Admiral James Stavridis can be considered the military equivalent of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and is among the small percentage of senior leaders in any sector that actively engage in social media under his own name.  Stavridis, currently commanding United States and NATO troops in Europe, is one of the military’s most prolific users of social media, openly engaging both the public and an internal audience of service members and their families through a variety of platforms.

“We are in the business of ideas, not missiles,” Stavridis says. “Our main battery, so to speak, is communication.”

Organizations funded by the taxpayer, such as the military, assume the unique responsibility of communicating with the public that funds them.  Digital engagement is part of that effort.   Stavridis, for instance, is “easy to keep up with by checking Facebook or Twitter,” according to the Washington Post.

“The bottom line is that a leader must ‘own the message’ and be able to articulate it,” Stavridis told American Armed Forces Press Service reporter Donna Miles.  In addition to a Facebook page with more than 10,000 fans and frequent tweets, he also blogs for European Command, is a regular speaker at events like the TED Talks and often writes for military journals and trade publications.

For many CEOs in the private sector, however, the argument for becoming personally involved in social media endeavors remains unconvincing.

“Some simply don’t see the cost-benefit of the personal commitment,” elaborated Chris Perry in a recent Forbes article.  “Others turn away due to the risk of well-documented personal attacks, disclosure issues or media scrutiny from off-the-cuff commentary.”

Social media engagement requires frequent, candid updates, ranging from at least once a week for an effective blog to several times each day for an engaging Twitter.  CEOs, typically in their mid-50s, came of professional age in a time when privacy was more heavily valued, communication often delayed, and social media nonexistent.  “Public accountability” was a much less real-time concept, and leaders may chaff at the technical burden.

“As with anything, I believe that to be a valuable participant in social media, you must really dedicate the time,” says OtterBox founder and CEO Curt Richardson.  “I can admit that this stance could have something to do with my age. Ten years ago, someone told me that your view on life really changes after 50. I dismissed it then, but now know this is true. The things that are truly important come into focus–my family, my community, my employees.  I want to do right by these things by making sure I can dedicate time and attention to them. As such, I’m unable to dedicate time and attention to being an upstanding member of the social-sphere.”

Regardless of the rationale for staying away from social media themselves, a lack of personal CEO accounts has no documented effect on sales; nor does the creation of “brand enthusiasm” that digital gurus tout as a major benefit do anything to convert into cash revenue.  Though “transparency” is often stated as a goal of social media engagement, even if a CEO does put their own fingers to the keyboard, the reader may assume that someone other than the CEO drafted, or at the very least reviewed, content before it was posted, thereby diluting any perceived enhancement of transparency.   There is also the immeasurable effect created when an audience begins following an individual, not the brand – will that audience migrate with the CEO if they retire or are fired, or will they transfer their loyalty to the brand?  The former is more likely, which further chips away at any benefit gained by a CEOs personal involvement in social media

While in theory digital outreach has the potential to replace conventional mechanisms for conveying information, such as press releases, with a more user-focused experience easily adapted to include images, video and infographics, corporations remain limited by trade regulations that require the employment of press releases and dictate other required forms of communication.  Social media announcements then become highly redundant for time-crunched companies.  To some organizations, this represents a potential benefit, lost.

Josh James, the CEO of Domo, speaks of delegation when he encourages CEOs to get social.

“Social media isn’t a passing fad,” extolls James in a Forbes article he penned last summer.  “You have to spend enough time online to at least understand the shift in the world.  What gets in the way of executives getting on board? Social takes significant time and commitment, plus it’s an entirely new way of engaging with the world. But this argument strikes me as particularly odd because CEOs have people who can help filter the tweets and Facebook messages just like they filter their email and voicemail messages. “

One CEO that has mastered the art of social media engagement by delegation is retired Army General Joe Robles, head of United States Automobile Association, a financial services institution.  USAA has been called the “King of Social Media Among Big Banks”.  The company currently counts more than half a million followers on their Facebook page, and more than 40,000 on their Twitter account.  Robles does not engage in social media endeavors himself.

Most CEOs, already laden with the operational and strategic demands of running a company, are best served by adhering to the Robles model; that is, empowering their communication experts to translate their vision through cutting-edge digital avenues, but staying out of it themselves.  Doing all that they can to enhance brand awareness and esteem, including acceptance of the importance of communication and the possible place of social media tools in their arsenal, is certainly part of a savvy CEO’s job. So too is hiring well-trained and knowledgeable people to spearhead such communication efforts.

“Social media is serious business,” echoes Richardson, CEO of OtterBox,”and as with many other aspects of the company, I’ve decided to leave it to the experts.”

While ultimately each organization must find the right balance for their team and brand, in the social media cacophony, the voice of the expert rarely belongs to the CEO.

Jan Shultis is a writer, painter, and photographer, and has served around the country and in Afghanistan as a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  When not exploring digital media, she can be found on the beaches of southern California or catering to her horse; she can always be reached at and through the website

One Response to “The Digital Competence of Leaders”

  1. Brian Connolly says:

    Most (okay all) articles that carry this debate regrettably miss the forest thru the trees. In a nutshell, most think: so if I talk more I’ll be perceived as more real and that is a better vessel to place trust than a logo. That’s overly simplistic. Here:

    1. ALL business is hierarchical. Sure you can follow fashion and flatten the hierarchy and open the channels, but at the end of the day, the hierarchy exists and is inextricably related to mission and the almighty dollar.
    2. The language of hierarchy is control, NOT chit chat. Culture be it religious, business, your neighborhood or your family, is a frustrating factor. It’s about boundaries and preservation, not arms akimbo with scissors and what else can I break.
    3. Open communications and MORE communications does not necessarily equate to “trust.”

    Bottom line: Proper corporate “brand” (read relationship) is in all likelihood better articulated by an objective and time-tested representation.

    All to say that making the CEO more human sounds good. Those that are not CEO’s (read the horde of amateur social-media gurus) certainly would like to level the playing field. That’s human nature. But in the end, dancing in a minefield is probably a better bet.

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