How social media may save your career

You’ve gotten this far in your career without having to ‘tweet,’ ‘post’ or ‘like’. Why bother? It’s just a fad and things will soon change again. Won’t they? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

Unfortunately I know many senior leaders and ‘rising stars’ that think like this.

Richard Nixon failed to recognize the power that the new medium of television could have and it played a significant factor in losing his first bid for the White House. Could you be making the same mistake? In the early 1990s thousands of high performing and ‘high potential’ business, scientific and engineering leaders found their careers curtailed — virtually overnight. Could this happen to you? If you’re curious, read on.

In 1960 the primary content channels of the time were mainly newspapers, radio and the fairly recent arrival, television. Mainly broadcast media but effective at mass distribution of content and shaping public opinion. 1960 was also the year of the first televised debate in a US Presidential election.

Those listening to the radio broadcast of this debate tended to favor Nixon while those watching on television strongly favored Kennedy. Part of the reason for Kennedy’s success on television was that Nixon’s campaign team ignored the potential impact of the visual aspect of television (e.g., refusing make-up, not looking directly at the camera, etc.).

On camera, Nixon looked pale, sick, nervous and shifty. In fact, Nixon looked so bad on television that Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was purported to have said,

“My god they’ve embalmed him before he died.”

The impact of this new medium had a strong effect on voters and no election since has underestimated its power.

Just like television did in the Kennedy-Nixon election, today’s social media of Facebook and Twitter has also influenced US Presidential elections over the past decade. It also played a significant role in #brexit. However, I know of far too many executives who are either avoiding social media altogether or using it only for personal purposes.

What can mastering social media do for you as a leader?

  1. Help you converse and shape the agenda

Social media gives you a personal and transparent way to communicate directly with your employees, suppliers, investors and customers. You can share your thoughts and ideas, which can then spark conversations on issues relevant to each of these stakeholder groups. Social media is a way not only to join the conversation but, through your commentary and guidance, to also guide and shape your industry or business community. There is a lot of talk these days about being an ‘authentic’ leader…. social media is a powerful medium for authentically demonstrating your uniqueness as a leader.

  1. Help you have global conversations and impact

Mastering social media can also help you communicate more effectively with your stakeholders across geographical distances and time zones. Instead of broadcasting your ideas to your teams and partners around the country or the world you are able interact with them. You can connect and converse directly with employees and customers regardless of country or time zone. Do you offer flexible working hours to your employees? Social media can allow everyone to stay part of the conversation no matter which of the 24 hours they choose to work.

  1. Keep you connected to your team

What about engagement? The downsizing, off-shoring and efficiency programs of the 1990s and early part of this century have left us with flatter, globally dispersed organizations. Frequently teams and their leaders are disconnected from each other physically but often emotionally as well. We are more efficient but often feel less connected. The human side of business that people crave has been disengaged from many people’s working lives. Today’s social media tools can help you create stronger engagement with your teams and organization.

  1. Keep you relevant

Finally, mastering social media may save your career.

In 1991 I moved to Budapest to work at the first ‘Western-style’ executive development centre in the former Eastern Europe and Soviet Union – The International Management Centre. This business school was funded by ‘Western’ government aid and philanthropists to educate and develop market oriented business leaders. It was later to become the business school of the Central European University.

The local Hungarian faculty I worked with used to speak frequently of the ‘lost generation.’ These were highly skilled and competent leaders — businessmen, doctors and engineers who were not only recognized experts in their area but also were bilingual in their native Hungarian (or Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, etc.) and Russian. Russian was the second language they learned in school and, given the politics of the time, the most gifted linguists were able to use this effectively for career growth pre-1991.

In the dramatic changes overtaking the region all eyes rapidly turned Westward. Following the break-up of the USSR in December 1991 the value of speaking Russian for one’s career prospects plummeted. English quickly replaced Russian as the lingua franca and those leaders who weren’t able to master English quickly were deemed part of this ‘lost generation.’

Almost overnight English-language fluency became a critical executive leadership skill.

These ‘lost generation’ leaders also tended to be in their late thirties to early fifties. The parallel for leaders who are ‘digital immigrants’ (i.e., those born before the widespread adoption of digital technology) is clear. As the Bob Dylan classic goes, ‘the times they are a changin.’

We all know that technology and the digital age are introducing changes that are altering the social architecture of our world and redefining our relationships with others. Social media, just like television in the mid-20th Century, has forever changed how we communicate, receive and share information. I believe that mastering social media is a necessary executive skill for the 21st Century.

The question for you as a leader is this, will you embrace these changes and learn this critical skill or will you risk becoming part of a ‘lost generation?’

One last thing. You probably have heard about ‘authentic leadership,’ ‘neuro leadership,’ and that ‘leaders eat last.’ Follow this link if you want to learn about ‘leadership by hashtag.’

Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and James Vaughn

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