Leadership / Management | Technology & Social Media

Bump the CEO off the top of your org chart

Li The typical debate among businesses about social media has been, "Should we do this stuff?"

That debate is over. The answer is, "Yes."

"In the future," says digital strategist Charlene Li, "social networks will be like air" -- vital and ubiquitous, available everywhere. And if that's true, we must learn to use these tools. Now.

The really important questions about social media center on other issues, like, "How do I get started? And once I do, how do I succeed?"

Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and co-author of the influential Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, offered an eye-opening gameplan during her keynote at the 2009 DigitalNow Conference in Orlando.

Li's strategy starts with three basics: Identify your organization's social media evangelists, start small and listen first, and measure the right things. "Your goals will determine your metrics," said Li, so be sure your social strategy runs in tandem with your overall strategy.

What really caught my attention, though, were these brilliant thoughts:

Prepare for organizational change
Most organizational charts are hierarchical -- CEO on top, then directors, managers, etc. Social networks, though, are the anti-hierarchy. They put our customers / clients / members at the top of the chart.

And really, shouldn't they be there anyway?

Sure. But for many people, that's a scary thought. It means giving up control -- or rather, Li said, the illusion of control -- over the conversations about our organizations.

"If you think you're in control now, you're wrong," said Li. "You have to let go of control to be in control."

Peter Hirshberg, chair of Technorati's Technical Committee, agrees.

"Control was so 20th century," Hirshberg said in an earlier DigitalNow keynote. "Today, not engaging with your customers is weakness. Engaging leads to might."

Enter social media. These tools do more than give our customers a way to connect. They promote transparency and build customer loyalty, and those things strengthen our brands -- and our organizations as a whole.

Embrace failure
Starting in 2006, Wal-Mart launched three high-profile social media initiatives ... and watched as they crashed and burned in succession. They finally got it right with Check Out, a terrific blog for Wal-Mart's buyers. It's everything a blog should be -- authentic, responsive, honest, informative, personal.

Wal-Mart wasn't afraid to let failure become part of its social media culture, and eventually -- perhaps inevitably -- that led to success. "To me, that said they really wanted to get it right," Li said.

The lesson is a simple one: If you're afraid of failure, you'll never find the courage to do the things it takes to succeed.

It's a bizarre world we live in. We're bumping our CEOs off the top of our org charts and embracing -- even celebrating -- failure.

And we can thank social media for it all. It's no longer optional. We must figure this stuff out, regardless of the heartburn it causes.

"The most essential tool to have on your desk these days is a big bottle of antacid," Li said with a laugh. "You'll know you're doing it right if it feels a little crazy."

Let the craziness begin.


Bill Sheridan