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What Does It Take To Be A Leader In Social Business?

How important is leadership by example? Culturally, we respect people who "walk the walk," so leading business initiatives by example would seem pretty important.

It is surprising, therefore, that a recent study of Fortune and Global 250 companies found that only 10% of CIOs are actively involved in social activities. The study, carried out by enterprise social software vendor (see disclaimer below), used a formula developed by social scoring expert Mark Fidelman (an executive at The formula incorporates social activity levels taken from Twitter,, LinkedIn, Google+, and Alexa.

The reaction to the study has sparked a debate that centers on the following two questions:

  • Do executives need to participate in social business initiatives, or can they delegate leadership roles to domain experts?
  • Is the transformation to a social enterprise different than other technologically related business initiatives?

Clearly, leaders of companies can’t be experts in every detail for which they are responsible. Delegation and empowerment are critical tools for the effective operation of any organization, and the larger the organization, the more important these become. On the other hand, it is very difficult to analyze the success of an initiative if you don’t understand the complexities of what is being undertaken. This argument can made for any technologically related business transformation, like ERP, CRM, BPM, Y2K, or any other three-letter acronym (TLA) initiative of the last 20 years. As a matter of fact, many CIOs who were not experts in these technologies were able to complete initiatives successfully. So what is different about the transformation to social business?

I believe the transition to social business is fundamentally different. This time, change is not merely concerned with the introduction and adoption of new operational business systems (which itself is incredibly difficult).

No, this time, people are being asked to think fundamentally different. They are being asked to change how they behave at work, how they get the information they need to do their jobs, how they share information with others, and how they seek out new ideas and expertise. This is really difficult.

Accordingly, social leadership by example is especially critical for success. This kind of change can only happen when backed up by actions. When employees see a CIO (or CEO) blogging, participating on Twitter, or posting updates on an activity stream, they understand the company is serious about change…from the top down. On the other hand, when employees are being asked to change, but they do not see any public presence from management, what’s the message? The message is clear—this is just another passing management fad. Resist long enough and it will eventually pass, like a lot of other failed initiatives.

Can CIOs relegate social activities to subordinate experts? I think not. Doing so would send a message that social tools are either too complicated for non-specialists (or anyone over the age of 30), or that it is not important enough to be part of an executive’s day. It’s the "do as I say, not as I do" message that every parent knows does not work.

Other commenters to the study asked whether it was enough for CIOs to be active on internal networks, or whether they also need a public-facing presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, etc. I think that if a CIO really believes in the power of social, this question is superfluous. A social CIO will seek out public forums because they understand the power of sharing information and belonging to professional networks. They won’t need to be coerced into participating.

What do you think? Can companies become social without active executive participation? Do CIOs need to be active on public forums to be social?

Tell me what you think in the comments; you can also email me at or tweet me at @dlavenda

—Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

*Disclaimer: The author is an executive at The views expressed here represent the author’s alone.

[Image: Flickr user Daniël Silveira]

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  • Jonathan McGuinness

    David, an excellent view on what should leaders do with this change which stimulates questions that need addressing. Here are some questions about fundamental parts of the work-life for leaders and all participants in the organisation including:

    1 - Which changes need to be made about how we describe a job or a role?; and
    2 - Which 'new' skills need to be acquired to be effective in this new environment?

    1 - Which changes need to be made about how we describe a job or a role?     Do we need to allocate 10% of our current working time to social media activities OR do we need to describe the outcome of the role and how different communication channels can empower us to achieve them?2 - Which 'new' skills need to be acquired to be effective in this new environment and how can the new flux of communications be directed?
         Stakeholder influence (notice the lack of the old phrase stakeholder management) becomes the responsibility of each person in the organisation and can only be directed by the leader. A new awareness of the impact of our communications both active and passive need to come to light.

    This is a amazing revolution in the world!

  • Kjell Kallman

    I have to agree with this main point, "A social CIO will seek out public forums because they understand the power of sharing information and belonging to professional networks. They won’t need to be coerced into participating." 

    There are lots of posts that say C-level exec's need to be social. But they aren't. To be a "social business" you have to model "social leadership." This doesn't mean the CEO, CMO or CIO has to always participate in their company's social activities, they have "people" for that. But they need to be social and walk the talk... don't you think?

  • Susan

    It should be a mandate for CIOs to be up to their eyeballs immersed in their company's public facing presence on as many social network platforms as possible. You can act your way into a new way of thinking, I've never personally witnessed anyone think their way into a new way of acting. You learn by doing, period. The issue as I "C" it is this; when you are a "C" who is going to hold you accountable to get out in the Twitter stream,etc. and swim with the fishes, the CEO? Its scary out there ;)
    A career marketing executive

  • David Lavenda

    Peter, I think that if you wrote 20 years ago that executives don't have to use email to understand its impact, it would sound about the same as saying that executives today don't have to use social media to understand it.  In 5-10 years time, this argument will be moot, because some form of social media tool will be as ubiquitous as email is today.

  • Peter Quintana

    I don't think this is essential at all. Understanding the impact of social media does not require an executive to use it on a regular basis, and not using it regularly does not make them out of touch. Social media is perhaps a significant revolution - it's still early days, so we cannot really say any more than that - but so was the internet back in the 90s, and maybe Apps will be in the future. Expecting senior execs to be hands on and immersed in all these things as well as leading is just not practical.

  • Loraine Antrim

    Communicating by example is critical for leaders. But it is an imperative when it comes to social media. If the C-suite denizens are not tweeting or blogging or posting videos, why should employees engage in social media activities with customers? More importantly, the C-suite execs who eschew social activities are showing that they are out of touch with what is a critical business activity these days. Loraine Antrim