Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO – Shakespeare Martineau
Historically, leaders would sit in a proverbial ivory tower, behind a wall of glass, guarded by their PA. Direct conversations didn’t come easy unless you were high up the food chain and the only time you heard from the CEO or MD was in an internal newsletter or external media piece, written by marketing.
But times have changed. The pandemic, in particular, has demonstrated the need for greater communication and humanisation of both businesses and the people who lead them.
For leaders, social media is a fantastic tool for not only reiterating important corporate messages but also showcasing business knowledge and – where appropriate – challenging and debating important political and sociological issues.
It’s also a great way to remain ‘visible’ within your own business especially in a hybrid world with people dispersed across the country and beyond. Leaders of large companies will struggle to get to every office and speak with every team regularly, but social channels provide that more personal, accessible platform for interaction at all levels.
Trust In Employers Is Growing
The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that public trust in the government, media and non-profits has fallen drastically. While trust in business in general has also fallen, it’s at a much lower rate and employee trust in their employers actually increased in the past year.
More than half of respondents (53%) want to hear more about what businesses are doing to positively impact society and the public want more, not less, business engagement on societal issues such as climate change, economic inequality and systemic injustice.
Plus, three in four (78%) people believe that CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or work their company has done to benefit society and, increasingly, more than half (56%) of respondents expect a CEO to speak publically about controversial social and political issues they care about.
It strikes me that we – as business leaders – should fill the knowledge gap, and that by working together to drive practical solutions and positive transformation (not just commenting and complaining), we do have the public trust, influence and reach to make changes for good.
While admittedly there are some leaders who are restricted in what they can and can’t say – those heading up listed PLCs, for example, who could have influence on the market – most can, and I believe should, be utilising social media as part of ‘the day job’ in order to stay relevant in the business world.
The pandemic forced us to merge our personal and professional lives – suddenly we’re having meetings with our colleagues’ dogs barking in the background and partners and kids walking past to make a cup of tea.
Our boundaries were blurred and it made it possible to share more personal interests on typically professional platforms, like LinkedIn. For example, I went ahead and shared my interest in music; not only did it help my mental health (and still does) throughout the pandemic, I found it was a shared passion with many other people across the business community. Had I not had the courage to showcase this important part of my life, I wouldn’t have found common ground with so many other people.
Start ‘Safe’, Start Small
Understandably, some leaders are still scared of directly using social media for communication – scared they’ll ‘get it wrong’ or that they’ll upset clients.
In my experience – you get out what you put in. If your opinions are disrespectful and aggressive, responses will be the same. But if you approach your posts with humour, personality and authenticity then responses are largely positive.
Most clients will accept that we all have differing opinions or may share your views – if they don’t, then assuming you’ve approached the topic respectfully, backed by fact, solutions and purpose, it will open a healthy debate, which can achieve much more positive change than an echo chamber ever would.
If you’re worried about taking that first step into personal brand profile through social media, then start small and start safe:
• What’s your ‘why’ – why are you doing this? Is it to raise your profile, the profile of your business, recruitment strategy or to build connections and collaborate with other leaders and innovators? Be clear on your purpose, vision, values and what you can offer and your why will connect your personal views and business ambition
• Use LinkedIn – as more ‘professional’ platform users would expect to see business and leadership updates from you here. Users don’t typically use avatars or post anonymously (like on Twitter), which takes away most of the threat of ‘trolling’. It’s also a space in which you are connected directly to important stakeholders such as people and clients
• Observe – start by commenting, interacting with other leaders you admire and following their lead
• Post about things you know and know well – strategy, leadership, culture – there’s no need to comment outside your comfort zone at the start
• Do it yourself – this doesn’t mean you can’t ask marketing to help design a social media tile or edit your video, but writing the comments and opinion yourself is the only way to get your authentic-self across
• Be brave, be honest, be kind – and you can’t really go wrong.
Leading By Example
I’m often asked about how you go about encouraging senior leaders to post on social but also ‘controlling’ what they say. My personal opinion is that if you can’t trust your leaders, then why did you hire them in the first place?
Provide guidance and training for those who want it, sure – but you can’t tell someone how to be themselves. You have to liberate them to do it themselves and the best way to do that is leading by example.
A Key Tool
‘B2B’ is a myth; people buy from people and humanising a business and the senior leaders of that business will only help customers and communities to get to know you – and feel like they know you on a personal level, even if you’ve never met and never will.
Social media is your opportunity to connect, drive positive change and, importantly, showcase your true, authentic self.
References: Edelman Trust Barometer