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Niall Gavin

First Group Plc

IS Training Manager

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Should your CEO be on Twitter?


I blogged recently about an exchange on Twitter with the CEO of an e-learning company who, in a tweetchat, referred to his staff as his "subordinates" – a description which I challenged.  

I won't rehash the discussion that followed here because I want to talk about something else; something related, but different. I want to talk about Leadership and Values.

As an independent consultant, after some 30 years in IT Training, Learning & Development and Learning Technologies, and having developed an active and rewarding professional network via social media, I have been watching, listening and talking with my PLN (Personal Learning Network) and reading a lot about leadership skills and behaviours.

So, I visited the website of the aforementioned CEO's company to see if his comments and behaviour in our 'conversation' reflected his business's values. There weren't any, but there was a lot of trumpet-blowing about how good they were at what they do (fair enough) and a LOT about him personally.

Now, that's fine, their brand is clearly represented by the gentleman himself and he has a high profile as a speaker, author, "thought leader" (his words) and as the President of the company. But I wonder how his staff feel about being described as his 'subordinates' in a public forum like Twitter. Does that make them feel valued, empowered, autonomous?

Maybe it doesn't, but maybe that's OK, because they know him and take that description as humorously ironic – his sense of humour – and not how it really feels to work for him.

Or maybe he really does think of his staff as subordinates, and actually how the organisation presents itself to the world is in stark contrast to what it feel like to work there, precisely because of his contradictory attitude.

Aligning values with behaviour

I've had experience of working for my own company, and in both the public and the private sectors in the UK.

When my wife and I had our own IT Training business back in the early '90s, our values were plain for all to see. We were 'it' – the pre-sales team, the analysts, the instructional designers, the trainers and the customer care team thereafter. If I sold you some training, chances were I would also deliver it – walking our talk, in other words.

When I worked in the Police, the mission and the values of the Force were clear and easy to get behind. The purpose and focus was clear – to deliver a safety and security service to the public in a fair and effective manner.

The top management were publicly accountable and their public and internal persona

The hierarchy, and our responsibilities (even as a civilian training manager) therein, were clear. The top management were publicly accountable, and their public and internal persona, behaviour and communications were aligned. Consequently, staff – uniformed and civilian – were engaged and behaved accordingly. 

Visible leadership

I've also experienced a change programme supposedly enabled through the presentation & socialisation of a new vision and set of underpinning values & behaviours across a large organisation.

Led, supposedly, from the top, but actually owned and policed by a Communications function, they espoused very noble public intentions and commitment, a little grandiose for the sector perhaps, but distinctive from a marketing perspective. Those values were to be cascaded down through the rest of the business – and that's where things started to get diluted and patchy.

If your corporate vision and values are not lived inside the organisation, but are, in fact, enforced by a 'Spanish Inquisition' and rigidly imposed processes, rather than modelled by management throughout, then the staff are unlikely to feel engaged with them and still less likely to live by them. 

Speak authentically to inspire enthusiasm and commitment

And that's where senior leadership has a clear role to play – to be the visible and articulate exponents of these values and behaviours, to be in touch with, and in dialogue with, the rest of the expanded team (not just their immediate direct reports), to speak authentically and to inspire enthusiasm and commitment.

When that leadership is remote, relies on others to interpret – and more than likely dilute – their own personal, passion and commitment, and concentrates of the traditional external marketing of the values (press releases etc.), rather than on personally inspiring their staff, then the message won't get through, and the staff will not feel valued, empowered and autonomous. Rather, they will sense a lack of authenticity, a disconnect, and they will disengage.

The social CEO

In her blog CEOs on Twitter: Brilliant Idea or Total Fail?, Charli Day (@charli_says) suggests that getting your CEO on Twitter, hearing his or her voice in a social media environment, can, if they have the ability and charisma to represent their brand (authenticity again), be of great benefit to any organisation.

Charli's focus here is on the public face of the brand, but I would contend that leaders need to remember that their staff are more than likely already active in social media – on Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, Glassdoor etc. – and they expect to see and hear their leadership and colleagues active in those spaces also.

They want to feel part of something that matters, that matters to the boss as much as it matters to them

They expect an authentic voice in those places too, not the 'massaged message' which has been through the Communications mincer. They want to feel that they are a part of something that matters, that matters to the boss as much as it matters to them.

I suggest that all managers should be looking to their own social media presence, to the benefits that they and their teams will gain, to the learning and networking opportunities which will emerge and to the business benefits for their organisations in being seen by the customer, by the press, by the investor and by their own colleagues from being seen in that space. And the most important of these is the colleagues.

As one of the Top Ten CEOs who tweet, Richard Branson (@richardbranson), CEO of Virgin, nailed it in a recent post, "Put your staff first, customers second, and shareholders third."

One final word of caution, and a self-check thought to keep in mind: If you are going to post in public, Mr/Ms Chief Exec, be careful about how you describe your staff in social media, even if in jest. Remember, 'Intent versus Impact'!

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Niall Gavin

IS Training Manager

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