Social Media and Social Causes Can Bring CEOs Out of the Shadows

 
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CEOs Need to Connect With Employees

Some things you take for granted. The sun will rise in the east. A two-year-old eating chocolate will get chocolate on her face (and her arms and her legs). Breakfast for dinner is awesome. Employees know who runs their company.

Well, three out of four ain’t bad.

A recent survey from APPrise Mobile found that 23% of employees working for a company with 500 or more employees weren’t sure of their CEO’s name. Even more—32%—weren’t confident they could pick their CEO out of a lineup.

This floored me. I wasn’t comforted when I learned that most of those who didn’t know their CEO worked somewhere other than headquarters and were more likely to be 25 or younger, just getting started in their careers. I would be willing to bet that, if asked, anyone in any branch of the military in 1944—regardless of location, rank, age, or years of service—knew Dwight Eisenhower was their Supreme Allied Commander. Yet this survey data suggests 111,000 Target employees couldn’t identify CEO Brian Cornell from his mug shot; 24,000 Procter and Gamble employees would stutter and shrug when asked who runs their company. (Answer: David S. Taylor.)

Mentioning this data provokes some surprising responses from business people. Some of those I’ve talked with argue that it’s not important if a mill worker in a plant 1,500 miles from headquarters doesn’t know the CEO; it’s more important that he know his boss and the plant manager.

I beg to differ.

The CEO’s role is clearly defined. The highest-ranking executive in a company, the CEO is responsible for setting the company’s strategic direction, has the final say on big decisions, manages operations, serves as a liaison between the board and everyone else, establishes and evangelizes the mission, and serves as the principal point of communication with key stakeholders.

Employees should be the highest priority on the stakeholder list. Consider another finding from the APPrise Mobile survey:

Only 55% of employees at larger businesses feel like they fully understand the company’s mission statement. At the same time, nearly a quarter of respondents (23%) stated that they believe they would better understand their company’s objectives if they received more regular and meaningful communications from their CEO. Increased communications from the top boss would also lead many employees to be more motivated (16%), recommend their job to others (9 percent), work harder (8%), and turn down other jobs (6%).

To put that in a short declaration: Employees want to be led by leaders who lead. If the leader whose responsibility is to sell the mission isn’t even recognizable to the employees who breathe life into it, communicating the mission to other audiences is an exercise in futility.

Connecting with employees, therefore, should be a primary concern for CEOs, who should explore multiple and cross-channel avenues for reaching their people.

The Usual Channels

Management by Wandering Around (MBWA), popularized at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, is fine but leaves behind anybody who doesn’t work in the same building as the CEO. Anytime a CEO visits a non-hq location, she should make time to meet with employees in a local town hall setting or, at least, walk the floor and talk to people.

There are some terrific examples of CEO emails to employees, but most are infrequent and impersonal (and, worse, many are ghost-written). Some CEOs do a great job of communicating to staff with video. Cisco chairman and former CEO, John Chambers, had a reputation for producing quick, informal, unscripted videos that he delivered over his internal blog.

Town halls are also fine (unless they’re not, and they’re frequently not), but every great town halls are only held quarterly or, worse, annually.

Small group meetings with randomly selected employees (or those identified as influencers) work well, as does participation on internal social media.

The Social CEO

External social media, however, can also be a wildly effective way for CEOs to connect with employees. A growing number of company leaders have established Facebook Pages (using their personal accounts or Pages that let them keep their personal accounts for friends and family) where they engage with stakeholders more personally and authentically.

These days, it is fast becoming a requirement for CEOs to engage via social media. As Marcia Newbert and Hilary Teeter note in a post to the Edelman blog, “How can a CEO build (a) dialogue when workforces come in all shapes, sizes and sometimes even shifts? As the media landscape continues to transform, social channels provide a unique opportunity for CEOs to communicate directly with their employees—including team members without company email addresses or access to traditional intranet channels.”

If your CEO is engaging with people on Facebook (which is closing in on 2 billion active users), it’s a fair bet a lot of employees will pay attention, along with other stakeholders, which matters when less than half of the general population trusts CEOs. The opportunity to establish relationships based on authentic engagement is too important to ignore.

A social-minded Facebook post from Netflix CEO Reed HastingsAmong the CEO’s engaging via public social media channels: Netflix’s Reed Hastings, eBay’s Devin Wenig, Sprint’s Marcelo Claure, and Edelman’s Richard Edelman. AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes talks with employees (and other audiences) via Twitter.

The Values-Minded CEO

Another sure-fire way to engage employees is by talking candidly about social issues. PwC CEO Tim Ryan— who after only a few days on the job found himself in Dallas amid rising tensions between the police and the African-American community—sent a note to all 46,000 employees. The note expressed his grief and sadness “while still knowing that wasn’t enough,” according to a FastCompany profile.

In a LinkedIn post, Ryan wrote that he heard back from more than 200 employees. The impassioned feedback led him to convene town halls as safe spaces for discussion of these issues that demonstrated “the depth and immediacy of how this situation was affecting (employees) and how much they wanted to connect with others to process what was unfolding. I knew I was taking a risk by hosting these conversations, given I had only been in the job for a few days. (But I also) knew that we needed to address what was going on. I couldn’t expect our employees to show up at work thinking it was business as usual.”

Today, employees are overwhelmingly behind and involved with Ryan in his multiple social and community-focused efforts, proving that taking a stand and participating in the values-driven marketplace is another way CEOs can connect with their employees. Ryan is credited with practicing “trust-based leadership.”

Don’t Be This CEO

The point is, there are a lot of ways CEOs can connect with their employees, but they have to make the effort. What no CEO should want is what I witnessed at a town hall 30 or so years ago. I had just convinced my CEO that he needed to include non-managers in a quarterly meeting that had historically been limited to managers. After the meeting, a group of admins approached him.

“How did you like it?” he asked.

“It was amazing,” one of the admins said as the others nodded their agreement. “It’s so fantastic to be included and to hear what the company has planned. It helps us understand the work we’re asked to do. We just have one question.”

The CEO smiled. He was beaming at the compliment. “What do you want to know?” he asked.

“Who are you?” she said.

He had assumed everyone knew who he was so he hadn’t introduced himself, but among the non-manager staff, that turned out to be a false assumption. Those admins were among the 32% who can’t recognize their own leader.

Don’t let your CEO be that guy.

 

 

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