The Paradox of Leading a Social Business

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

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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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.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
More in this series

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Comment (1)
Cheryl Burgess
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.