Should the C-suite learn to tweet?

CEOs of big, successful corporations largely don’t tweet. Fact. And that’s probably not going to change. Anyone who tells you that they should be active and public on social media probably has a vested interest in them doing so.

Does that mean that CEOs and senior execs shouldn’t understand the medium and what it offers? Hell no – McKinsey’s report on the social economy brings big-buck, bottom-line evidence to the table, showing that companies can unlock billions of dollars in value & productivity from effective use of social media, both internally and externally. But actively using social platforms, responding to it, scanning it constantly – that’s something a CEO or senior executive could probably do without.

Advocates of social media have taken a crowbar to the boardroom door of late to see if they can smuggle social media into the C-suite, armed with reports and opinion pieces all bent out of shape to show the world’s most successful businesspeople why they should use social media personally. An article by Ryan Holmes (headlined ‘The $1.3trillion price of not tweeting at work‘ – headline may not be his) bemoans the fact that of the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 20 (sic. – it’s 19) are on Twitter. Of those, nine are ‘active’ – i.e. have tweeted in the last 100 days. The article leans heavily on (but skims only a few tidbits from) that deep, analytical report from McKinsey which outlines untapped billions of value that could flow from the ‘social economy’.

Holmes says that the boardroom doesn’t want to know about social media:

As social media spreads around the globe, one enclave has proven stubbornly resistant: the boardroom. Within the C-suite, perceptions remain that social media is at best a soft PR tool and at worst a time sink for already distracted employees.

Maybe. Do they need to? Also maybe. The McKinsey report figures suggest that 53% of senior executives, at the level of vice-president or above, are using web 2.0 tech. In another McKinsey survey of executives at 4,200 companies around the world, 70% said that they were using social technology in some ways and 90% of those said they were seeing some degree of business benefits.

The management team is on board, and the benefits are likely to be rolled out through their teams and entire companies, so why are we still cribbing that the very tippy top of companies aren’t tweeting madly? Is it just that high-performing top-tier execs don’t use social tech in the platform-promoting way that the social tech world would like them to use it?

Granted, personal Facebook & Twitter use is low among Fortune 500 CEOs. Just 3.8% of them are on Twitter, a tiny sliver when compared to the 34% of Americans who use the platform. But then, that 34% of Americans aren’t running the world’s most successful businesses. Another ‘social CEO’ survey in said ‘CEOs lagged far behind the general population in terms of social media participation’. But then, the general population lag far behind CEOs in terms of career progression, don’t they? So why worry?

What the figures for CEO Twitter usage may also fail to take into account is that any CEO who guards his or her valuable time would arguably be best served by ‘lurking‘ on social media platforms rather than actively engaging. Could it be that @SlickLover45 is actually the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s second-largest company, just hanging out on Twitter, silently watching and absorbing during thin slivers of available time? When one’s time is so valuable, how that time is used becomes increasingly important, and the most effective CEOs are often the ones who manage their time best. To this end they have PAs, secretaries and team leads who redirect low-level distraction away from the chief. Focus is everything.

Adam Brault is not a Fortune 500 exec, but is the founder of a software company &yet, and he gave up Twitter for November 2012 to take time out and reappraise his relationship with the platform. The key takeaway from his time off? The value of uninterrupted thought.

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought. That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths … I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

Don’t think that Brault is a good enough example, when we’re talking about bigshot executives? Fine, but it’s a mode of thought put forward by former Paypal CEO Peter Thiel, who advocated ‘extreme focus’ when he was the boss there:

Thiel developed an unorthodox, extreme philosophy on focus and prioritization. Instead of focusing on five things, or three things, the magic number is one. You only focus on one singular thing. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls, Thiel “would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative.”

Jack Dorsey, former Twitter boss and CEO at Square, breaks his week into focused days, with each day taking a particular theme.
Naturally, he and current Twitter CEO Dick Costolo are both on Twitter. Twitter, however, isn’t in the Fortune 500. Yet.

While they largely shun Twitter, CEOs are above-average users of LinkedIn, the global professional network, with 129 of the Fortune 500 bosses boasting active LinkedIn profiles – 25.9% of Fortune500 CEOs, compared to just 20.2% of the general population. Making and maintaining a walled garden of valuable personal connections is seemingly of greater benefit to them – which would lend you to believe that if a CEO wanted to use Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and wanted to mimic the utility they saw from LinkedIn, they would be best served by a private, locked account. High-level executives do not, as a rule, crave the intrusion that comes with public profile. In a lengthy interview with Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, he said that he couldn’t even identify the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who has a negligible profile in comparison with that of Steve Jobs’ high-profile successor. Exxon Mobil is number two in the Fortune 500. Would you suggest that the lack of a social media presence is impeding Rex Tillerson from doing his job effectively? Hardly. For some CEOs in some sectors, being in the public eye will be beneficial. For others, it’s counter-productive. There are plenty of CEOs who choose to be online, and visibly so. Others will shun it, personally, and yet run companies which have an effective and useful social media presence, and whose business development teams roll it into their research and outreach programmes.

Holmes again:

Without a push from the top, many of the biggest companies have been slow to take the social media plunge.

McKinsey again suggests otherwise. Their report showed 62% of Fortune 500 companies as active on Twitter. In fact, the same report says that only 31% of the Fortune 500 had no social media presence in 2011. In contrast to the perception, it’s the world of small business that is lagging behind. Only 31% of America’s SMEs were on social media in 2011.

One thing that Holmes, and McKinsey agree on is the value of social media to large companies. Ditching email in favour of social internal comms networks like Yammer, mining social media for data, customer insights , sales routes and feedback can deliver directly to the bottom line. Nielsen know it’s valuable. Harvard know it’s a source of competitive intelligence. The McKinsey report is a chunky one (160 pages before you hit the bibliography), and it’s worth reading in full. It avoids the pom-pom hyperbole and superficiality of many pseudo-surveys which offer paltry insight and serve as attention-getting PR cannon-fodder.

Of course, if as a CEO you’ve frittered away the time you’d spend reading an insightful report updating your status on social media, you can just read the executive summary.

Before signing off, here’s a real-world example of how having the fop floor office fully connected to the outside world is a double-edged sword. Dan Cobley, MD of Google in the UK & Ireland, racked up 411 comments on one post on his Google+ profile over the botched delivery of Google’s Nexus4 phone. It’s an example of how customers were able to give direct (and vehement) feedback directly to the top tier of management, but also an insight into how distracting that direct connection could be.  Is it the MD’s job to be dealing with customer dispatch gripes? Answers on a tweet.

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