The Social Employee: The Secret Sauce That Cisco, Southwest Airlines, And Adobe Use To Win

Thanks to social media, businesses are more transparent than ever. In a conversation with one of the authors of the new book, The Social Employee, Fast Company contributor David Brier discuss how companies can leverage this idea to empower employees as brand ambassadors.

The Social Employee: The Secret Sauce That Cisco, Southwest Airlines, And Adobe Use To Win

“What if your employees spoke about your product the way they speak about marriage?”


It’s a question asked by comedian Dan Naturman. “You wouldn’t buy any product if people talked about it the same way people talked about being married. Like, if you went to buy a car and the salesman was like, ‘This car . . . not easy, not easy. You really got to work at it. There will be good and bad days with this car but . . . don’t give up.’ ”

When I upgraded to my newest iPhone at my carrier’s store, the salespeople tried to sell me everything but the iPhone that I came in and requested. They were opinionated and horrendous ambassadors for a product they were selling.

Social Media: More Than Skin Deep

But that’s the surface level and it goes deeper. Recently I learned how Shark Tank investor Daymond John used social media to learn what the consumer’s viewpoint was when relaunching FUBU. So I looked at this aspect: What if social media tools could be used by employees to dramatically accelerate insight, productivity, and innovation?


Word of Mouth Starts at Home

Fact is: Employees have become one of the most potent front lines of a brand’s social voice. Smart brands have known this long before social media became part of “business as usual.”

As stated by David C. Edelman, an exec with McKinsey & Company:

Just as supply chain strategy has become a critical part of most companies’ operations, building a Content Supply Chain is becoming a new operations priority. The growing complexity of moving content, measuring impact, optimizing, following up, and continuously learning from it all will make marketing operations the next frontier for productivity improvement.

So I decided to delve deeper into this branding tool, came across the Amazon best-selling book The Social Employee, and tracked down one of its authors, Cheryl Burgess, to get some insight into how to best orchestrate a social media campaign that starts at home.


David Brier: What’s the concept for anyone unfamiliar with the premise of your book, The Social Employee?

Cheryl Burgess: In a nutshell, we are arguing that the path to social business lies through the social employee. The concept of social business has gained a lot of traction over the past few years, and rightfully so. Many fantastic books and blogs have been written on the subject, and business leaders have a general idea of what this looks like but lack the underpinnings of how and why this works.

For example, you can buy your grandmother a new Kindle and tell her that she now has access to an effectively limitless supply of content to read. But if you haven’t captured her imagination and gotten her excited about this new device and what it can do to improve her reading experience (if it indeed does even improve it), don’t be surprised to see her flipping through the pages of another well-worn paperback next time you come over.


So we wanted to see what going social meant for businesses at the employee level.

What’s the major challenge you’ve witnessed for companies looking to succeed going forward?

A lot of brands are still dragging their feet, waiting to see if this whole social media “fad” is going to die down anytime soon. There’s still a common perception that social media only entails external-facing platforms, which means that there’s a persistent concern that the extent of going social means allowing your employees onto Facebook and Twitter during business hours.


When we talk about social business adoption, we firmly believe that a brand cannot communicate externally unless it first learns to communicate internally. Social business must begin with this goal in mind–otherwise the whole process will break down. A shift in mind-set must precede and ultimately drive a shift in corporate culture. The why must drive everything from all levels of the brand, from the top down.

What’s the most unused asset companies overlook in this social-centric business model?

Brainpower. Social is only about technology insofar as what that technology can do to facilitate human innovation.


In-house social platforms have tremendous potential for building new approaches to collaboration and cocreation. The greatest product of a good idea is more good ideas, and it’s now within every business’s grasp to dramatically accelerate this process. Good ideas will still originate from talented individuals, but now these ideas can be amplified and expanded with remarkable efficiency.

We found that many of the brands we spoke with, such as IBM and Cisco in particular, had harnessed powerful approaches to crowdsourcing that simultaneously allowed individual voices to resonate and for a group of employees to speak as one. To learn about how some of these approaches played out was really quite inspiring.

I understand Cisco transformed from a “push model” of business and command channels to your model. How did they do that?


Cisco used crowdsourcing tools to transition from a much more traditional business model to one that was leaner, more customer-focused and employee-driven. Their mission, their why, was to become a company that offered solutions. They wanted to be known for solving problems, not just providing tools.

Over the better part of a year in 2012, Cisco held a series of conferences that put executives directly in contact with more than 3,000 managers within the company, and through an innovative communications interface, they collectively hammered out a new direction and philosophy for the company, one that prized employee buy-in above all other considerations.

Southwest is another company you discuss. It has always been very connected to its customer base. What is Southwest’s story?


It began with a blog post about a chance encounter where a Southwest flight attendant learned that one of her passengers was none other than Taylor Swift’s father. He was so impressed with the flight attendant’s assistance, he gave her a few of Taylor’s guitar picks that he happened to have on hand.

“Then, on the very next flight, the same flight attendant (whose name is Holly) met a couple who turned out to be huge Taylor Swift fans. Learning this, Holly offered some of the picks to the couple, who were blown away.

The spillover onto “social media channels” was instantaneous: The couple, while still in flight, used the in-flight Wi-Fi to send this story to Southwest’s social media team who, in turn, prepared a giant chocolate chip cookie with the words “Holly, most remarkably kind flight attendant.” Further, the passenger created an impromptu agreement stating that they will continue to only fly Southwest as long as Holly remained employed by Southwest.


I understand Adobe also used this model. How did they use it?

When Adobe began to look at the new business tools available to them and how those might be able to transform their business, the first thing they did was examine the current level of social media adoption within their ranks.

This kind of initiative should be applauded, but the problem with informal adoption like this, as Adobe found, was that each department or work group was using different tools and processes to address their needs. This meant that they could communicate well with their immediate coworkers, but not nearly as well with other departments and branches of the business. Further, Adobe found considerable redundancies and duplication of efforts. We learned the resulting boost in productivity and elimination of silos was almost instantaneous, and the company was sure to chart this progress through a series of key performance indicators.


What’s the biggest (and most common) mistake companies make when transitioning to this model?

There’s no vision behind the changes, just a vague mandate to do things differently. Companies that put the technology before considering their employees encounter difficulties that could have been avoided.

The fact is: Workers at any company are plenty busy as it is. It’s unfair to them if they’re just given new tools and thrown into the fire. Chances are, they like the way they were doing things before just fine and don’t understand why they’re being asked to change.


When Domo CEO Joshua James initiated the #DomoSocial program in 2012, he allowed time to learn, adopt, and clarify. Employee adoption of social media became the brand’s top priority until the desired results had been produced.”

For companies new to this, what are the first steps you suggest to successfully make this transition?

Establish the why early. Look at the social business landscape and decide how it can help your brand. Follow Simon Sinek’s now-famous statement, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it,” has become a rallying cry of sorts for social business.


Get employees involved. Social business is fundamentally collaborative, an alternative to the command-and-control, top-down structure businesses have traditionally used.

Provide transparent executive leadership. Your social employees need to know that your brand believes in these social initiatives from the highest levels down. Surveys have shown that both employees and customers are more likely to trust a brand when its executives are visible and engaged in social media.

Finally, reward employee adoption, and develop a culture where learning is continual. Remember as well that every brand has employees from a variety of age groups and that the adoption process will take different amounts of time for different people.

The more care you put into empowering your employees, the more care your empowered employees will put into acting as engaged brand ambassadors in the digital bazaar.

My thanks to Cheryl for her generous insights into [i]The Social Employee and how to use it more effectively inside and outside of organizations to build communities and platforms for accelerated growth, engagement, and innovation.[/i]

[Image: Flickr user Caden Crawford]


About the author

Brand identity expert, veteran designer, author, speaker and Fast Company expert blogger. Shark Tank investor and CEO of fashion brand Fubu, Daymond John states, "David Brier is brilliant with branding." He’s been written about in, INC and Fortune Small Business. In addition to being a branding specialist and a Fast Company expert blogger, David's Slideshare presentations on branding have exceeded the 500,000 view milestone (a founding member of Slideshare's Half-a-Million Views Club) and is the 1st place winner in the 2013 Shorty Awards (known industry-wide as “The Oscars for Social Media”) for branding