Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Social media has arrived, but what is it really doing for us? In my research for my book Return on Impact: Leadership Strategies for the Age of Connected Relationships (ASAE, 2012), I set out to answer that question. Social media may be well established, but few companies know what to do with it. Their leaders understand and are proactively leading the effort even less. In late 2012 the Harvard Business Review partnered with SAS to publish results of a survey of 2100 executives on their company’s social media usage and plans. Their report “The New Conversation: Taking Social Media from Talk to Action” points to a sadly myopic view of the role companies give to social media.

Most see it as an expanded marketing channel. The marketing department gears social media efforts toward increasing awareness of the organization or brand, monitoring trends among customers, and researching new product ideas. Human Resources has begun to tag along, focusing on building an employer brand that can leverage social media for talent acquisition.

But social is more than building brands. It’s more than networking to find that next job or collaboration partner. In my view, the task for leaders is to take the social conversation to a strategic height in the C-Suite, where it belongs.

According to the HBR/SAS study, 31% of executives felt that the most pressing challenge facing their organization was “linking social media activities to an impact on company financials and/or ROI.” Only leaders can surmount that challenge.

As leaders, we need to use social network platforms strategically to drive growth for our organizations. But who has a roadmap to that strategy? That’s where I feel I have something to offer.

In Return on Impact, I chart the implications of a socially enabled world for reinvention of “business as usual”—redesigning your organization’s structure and governance, talent acquisition, listening practices, and business and revenue models. This is a fundamentally different approach leaders must undertake to fuel growth in the next decade.

What will keep you relevant to your customers and other stakeholders as their access to information and connections with others like them increases exponentially? How will you maintain a compelling conversation with them as they grow ever more distrustful of the producers of information, products, and services?

Social tools put professional networks within arm’s reach of every leader. But leadership is unlike any other aspect of professional life. What must a leader do differently in a socially enabled world?

The first step—and it is imperative, I assure you—is to develop a robust social strategy. That won’t come from marketing or HR. It has to come from the stewards of the organization. It has to come from you. Not the nitty-gritty detail of the action plan, but the vision to position your organization for strategic advantage, tied to your larger sense of purpose and desire for market impact.

Your social strategy must be robust enough to navigate turbulent conditions in your ongoing pursuit of evolution and relevancy. Particularly when it comes to social strategy, leaders need to recognize the fluidity of the competitive landscape. The need for your courageous guidance will be continuous. Even as you maintain your commitment to translate your organization’s purpose into practice, that purpose itself may need to change. The first lesson learned by taking that first step is that a robust social strategy—like a robust leader—cannot exist alongside sacred cows.

A strong social strategy demands an underlying structure with:

  • An empirical assessment around which business outcomes with measurable ROI can be build.
  • A guiding plan that allows for failure in order to learn, and that challenges key stakeholders to deep thought about desired outcomes.
  • Diligent execution, well coordinated, that executes key tasks and achieves milestones according to the guiding plan.

Six steps follow to transform you into a leader capable of achieving Return on Impact in the age of connected relationships. In future articles I’ll discuss the six steps that lead you beyond the old way of using social (as a one-way promotional channel) toward turning information into insights with that drive value to your bottom line.

Nour Call to Action:

Aim to implement the following three best practices:

  1. Take the conversation on social engagement strategy to your next meeting of CXOs and/or your board.
  2. Ask every senior manager this question: “How effectively do you feel our organization is currently using social networks and media?” Ask them on what evidence they base their response.
  3. Consider your current usage of social media. Are you meeting your customers where they are? Which channels are actively used? Does your social strategy include multimedia sharing, review sites, discussion forums, blogs? To what extent are your customers taking part in the conversation? How can you start quantifying current usage, so you can measure the change as you adopt Return on Impact strategies?

Let me know your thoughts.


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