You already know social media is a handy job-search tool. You dutifully update your LinkedIn account and scrub your Facebook profile of incriminating photos. But what you might not realize is that your approach to social media should change as your career moves forward. What works for landing that first-ever job won’t be the same thing that gets you promoted to VP.
The same way you should shift focus on developing different skill-sets at each stage of your career, you’ll also want to periodically retool your social media approach. Fast Company spoke with Washington, D.C.–based personal branding consultant Dr. Talaya Waller to find out how.
"When you’re younger and you’re just beginning your career, it’s almost expected that we have some sort of social presence," Waller says. "When we don’t, it’s almost like a red flag. You don’t get as much leeway as somebody mid-career."
So while it’s true that you should delete or set to private anything you might not want your next boss to see, you should probably spend just as much time filling your streams with content that you do want employers to notice.
"Research some of the other thought leaders in your industry and see what kind of platforms they’re on," Waller advises. "I’m a firm believer in benchmarking. I personally try to look for other people who are on my level." It’s not about pretending to be your industry’s most venerated thinker at age 22. It’s just a matter of setting yourself up for favorable comparisons with your nearest competition.
Find a few peers in your field whom you admire (or envy), check out which platforms they’re using in order to get their names and ideas out there, and stake out a presence alongside them. You can start small, then build up at your own pace.
"Don’t think about the position that you’re in," Waller adds, "think about the position that you want to be in . . . A lot of companies want to see that you’re entrepreneurial, [and] it gives you leverage to show you can go out and make it on your own."
"Mid-career, it’s almost all about relationships," says Waller. But the goal is to take those online connections offline. "You should be using your social platform to build relationships outside of the digital space, using it to message people and set up meetings with people, [and] getting yourself out there."
This switch-up is easy to fumble. Once you’ve spent the first leg of your career building up your digital profile, gathering followers, and striking up some Twitter banter with key players in your field, moving into the real world may feel like backpedaling.
It isn’t. "At that stage, the only thing that’s going to get you to the next level is building those relationships," says Waller. And to do that meaningfully, you need to book actual, in-person face-time with people who matter.
That doesn't mean backing away from the social presence you worked so hard to build, though. At mid-career, social platforms should be where you share what you’re working on. Ideally, people in your field already know who you are; now show them what you do, whether that’s sneak previews of the book you’re writing, or a video clip from a talk you gave.
Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes has argued that many C-level execs think social media doesn’t really apply to them; by one measure, more than 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs have no personal social media presence whatsoever.
As Holmes sees it, that’s a huge liability from a business standpoint: "Social media, used correctly, can be an executive productivity tool, a global broadcast channel, a source of consumer and competitor intel, and a PR vehicle."
But it can be career vulnerability, too. Even leaders need to keep building and maintaining the relationships that brought them to the upper levels of their professions—including with the rising talent who’ll either help them execute their big ideas or else emerge as competitors.
At the later stages of your career, Waller says, "you have the experience that the younger people don’t have. You should focus on spreading your knowledge . . . and mentoring other people, then bringing in those people" as interns and employees. Social media can be a great tool for doing all that.
Holmes advises busy execs to hire people who can help get them started and manage the grunt work of social platforms, and Waller agrees. "It’s never too late . . . and if you don’t want to do it, there’s always someone you can pay to do it."
After all, she concedes, "You’re not going to be great at everything," and in late career, it's good to own the area where you specialize. As for leaders who aren’t convinced social media is worth their time? "Well, guess what? In like five minutes your entire career can be wiped out," thanks to a PR crisis or sudden social media backlash. If you don’t have a voice on the key platforms, you can’t weigh in with your perspective.
As Waller cautions, "Waiting until something happens is too late"—both for your company and possibly also for your career.