In social business, the best way to lead might be to follow — or at least get out of the way.

In last year’s report on social business conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte, we highlighted the importance of effective leadership for social business. This finding is echoed in this year’s report: effective leadership is one of the most important factors determining both a company’s social business maturity and also the outcomes derived from their social business initiatives.

This year’s report, however, also provides important nuance about how leadership in a social business differs from traditional management — a paradoxical balance between leading and following.

Start with a Transformative Vision

First, executive leaders must have a clear vision that social media tools can fundamentally transform the way the company does business. As I have written previously, social media tools are not likely to generate any sort of business advantage on their own. Rather, social media tools allow employees, managers, and customers to communicate and collaborate in novel ways, creating opportunities to do business differently.

Fundamental transformation of communication is possible because social media allows previously disconnected people to combine and exchange knowledge in novel ways, particularly between customers and employees. For example, KLM realized that their existing Twitter account could be used as a virtual lost-and-found for passengers who left valuable items on planes but are unable to retrieve them because they had already exited security. By using social media to connect customers on one side of security with employees on the other, lost items could be returned to customers relatively easily. Management vision for how these novel applications can improve business outcomes is essential to encourage employees to look for and implement these more novel applications.

Yet, leaders may not know exactly what transformation will be possible with social in advance. It is notable that KLM’s use of social media for this purpose only developed after the Twitter account was already active — even though the company has a longstanding history of innovative use of social media. It demonstrates that leaders may not recognize exactly which new applications may be valuable at the outset in order to have a vision for the transformative potential of social business.

A Latin aphorism captures this leadership challenge: solvitur ambulando, or, “it is solved by walking.” Only by doing and experimenting will leaders fully recognize the transformational benefits of social business for their company.

Inspire, Support, and Listen

A consistent theme among the executives we interviewed was that leadership in social business cannot be purely directive. Executives cannot simply mandate that employees begin using social media tools and expect the employees to fall in line. Because social business involves a fundamental transformation of various aspects of the company, its adoption and use by employees will evolve gradually over time.

Instead, leadership in social business involves communicating the vision for social business in the company clearly and consistently through internal marketing efforts. These internal marketing efforts often begin with grass-roots champions who are tasked with communicating the vision for social business, as well as providing support for employees who begin to use these tools for work. Social media champions often start as volunteers who are passionate about using social media within the company, but their roles and responsibilities often evolve into more formal positions as social business begins to take hold within the organization.

These champions also play another critical role. Since they are on the front lines when employees begin to adopt social media for work, they are privy to the anecdotal success stories and the novel applications of social media use within the companies. They are responsible for reporting and publicizing these uses and outcomes throughout the company.

Leaders should take special care to listen to what these champions report about how employees are actually using and deriving value from social business tools, particularly when reports depart from what is anticipated. Because these tools fundamentally change the way people work, social business initiatives often unfold in unexpected ways. Grass-roots champions provide intelligence so that leaders can support and celebrate successful applications of social business tools, highlight and disseminate innovative uses, identify and compensate for unintended consequences, and even abandon unsuccessful initiatives in favor of efforts yielding greater results.

Leadership support of these grass-roots efforts is also critical, as they may conflict with “business as usual.” For example, if a project team begins using a social media platform instead of email for collaborating, employees will not copy every possible stakeholder on every marginally relevant email. Such a shift will increase the efficiency of all involved by replacing interminable email threads with more streamlined communications, but it also introduces risks for employees who may be held accountable by outside stakeholders who expect the traditional email notification. Leaders must therefore clearly sanction and support employees’ use of social media tools in the face of these risks, lest employees simply default to the path of least resistance.

Reorient and Repeat

The result of this approach to social business leadership yields a recursive feedback loop. Leaders set a vision for social business in their organization; employees execute that vision, with results that may differ somewhat from expectations. Grass-roots champions then provide feedback to leaders on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the initiatives. This feedback allows leaders to refine their vision and set the compass for the next stage of the journey.

This approach to leadership is not weak or indecisive. Each step toward social business maturity changes how your organization works, how you relate to customers, and the competitive environment in which you operate. Only by successfully reorienting at each stage, can managers effectively plot a course for the next stage of development. A “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” leadership style in social business may start in exactly the right direction, only to eventually lead the company miles off course when its very success changes environmental conditions in which the company operates.

1 Comment On: The Paradox of Leading a Social Business

  • Cheryl Burgess | July 29, 2014

    Hi Jerry,

    Kudos for a great article! The path to a social business lies through social executives who empower their employees to become brand advocates and the voice of the brand. Social executives catalyze social business initiatives, by providing the mission, vision and values to the organization.

    Today, it isn’t enough for the social executive to send in the plays from the sidelines, they need to be a player as well. So, the analogy of player-coach comes into view. Social executives are players who lead by example. They are active in social media from tweeting, to blogging to LinkedIn.

    Social executives set the cultural tone of the organization by listening to the unvarnished voices of their employees. They act as a compass for their organization. Employees must understand “why” they’re being asked to adopt new ways of doing business, and feel confident that their brand’s social efforts are designed with a purpose that is fully supported by social leaders.

    The fundamental truth of a social business is that a brand cannot communicate externally unless it first learns to communicate internally.

    In my book, The Social Employee (McGraw-Hill) cutting-edge companies such as IBM, Cisco, AT&T, Southwest Airlines, and Dell have mapped out inspiring social business blueprints, providing both corporate giants and small businesses alike with the strategies they need to create a culture of social executives and social employees. It’s about re-imagining the future of business.

    Cheers,
    Cheryl
    @ckburgess

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