New Media Demands New Leadership

I don’t go to the South by Southwest conference for the sessions as much as for the people. The most interesting conversations usually happen outside of the conference rooms. One discussion that stuck with me this week occurred after a presentation by MIT’s Andrew McAfee entitled “What Does Corporate America Think of 2.0?”

While I was waiting in line to introduce myself to Mr. McAfee, I eavesdropped on a conversation he was having with the young woman in front of me. She gave her age as 28 and said she had recently been hired to coordinate social media at a real estate company where her bosses were mostly in their 50s. She was clearly demoralized and frustrated.

The young woman had been brought on board to get the realty company up to speed in the new Web technologies. She understood that conversational marketing requires a culture change, but her management wasn’t interested. Her bosses, she explained, saw social technology as simply another way to distribute the same information.

For example, she had been ordered to post press releases as blog entries and to use Twitter strictly for promotional messages. She had been told to get the company on Facebook but not to interact with anyone on its fan page.Her communications with the outside world were to be limited to platitudes approved by management.

I felt bad for this young lady and also for her bosses, who will no doubt lose her in short order. I suspect they hired a social media director in the belief that she could create new channels for them, but they didn’t understand the behavioral change that was required on their part.

Open Leadership

A couple of nights earlier, I attended a dinner given by Altimeter Group, whose founder, Charlene Li, co-authored the ground-breaking book Groundswell. Charlene was handing out galley copies of her forthcoming book called Open Leadership. In it, she suggests that management strategies must fundamentally change in the age of democratized information. I’ve only read a third of the book so far, but I can already tell that it will cause considerable discomfort in corporate board rooms.

In the opening chapter, Charlene notes that “to be open, you need to let go of the need to be in control… you need to develop the confidence… that when you let go of control, the people to whom you pass the power will act responsibly.” This notion of leadership replacing management will shake many of our institutions to the core.

The traditional role of management has been to control and communicate: Managers pass orders down from above to the rank-and-file who are expected to do what they are told.

In the future, communication will increasingly be enabled by technology. Employees will be empowered with information and given guidelines and authority to do the right thing. Middle managers won’t be needed nearly as much as they are today. Organizations will become flatter, more nimble and more responsive because information won’t have to pass up and down a chain of command before being acted upon. This will result in huge productivity gains, but progress will only be achieved when top executives learn to let go of the need to control and to accept the uncertainties of empowered constituents.

No Pain, No Gain

The real estate company’s mistake was in believing that it could participate in a new culture without changing its behavior. It saw social media as a no-lose proposition; distribute the same material through new channels but don’t accommodate the reality that constituents can now talk back. Any company that takes this approach will fail to realize the benefits of the media. Once its customers realize that their opinions don’t count, they will stop engaging with the company. That doesn’t mean they won’t do business with the company any more, but the benefits of using the new media will be lost.

I have never advocated that all companies adopt social media. Each business has a different culture, and some adapt more readily to open leadership than others. If employee empowerment and institutional humility don’t fit with your style, then social media is probably not for you. You may do just fine for several years without changing your practices. But if you choose to play in the freewheeling markets enabled by customer conversations, then you’d better be willing to let go of control.

Over time, I believe all companies will have to give up the belief that they can control their markets, because interconnected customers are an unstoppable force. In the short-term, however, businesses need to do what feels right for them. If you work for a company that can’t adapt itself to the concept of open leadership, then start circulating your resume. These days, there are plenty of businesses that are eager to change.

10 thoughts on “New Media Demands New Leadership

  1. Old habits die hard. I know many leaders (i.e. managers, corporate officers, etc.) who have positive feedback about their control issues. For many, it got them where they are. As a result, they’re not prone to relinquishing much control. Many fail to understand that not only have the rules changed, but the game has, too. This ain’t your father’s Oldsmobile. Oh, wait a minute. April 29, 2004 was the final day of production for the 107 year automaker. Sadly, here we are almost 6 full years past that date and I know too many business leaders who don’t know that “what got you here, won’t get you there.”

  2. Yesterday we were having a campus discussion about on-line courses and how they don’t feel right in the traditional day curriculum. The truth is the new media does not ‘feel’ right in most ‘traditional’ context. One thing I enjoyed about your opening this conversation is the introduction of the leadership concept. There is not question that we are forming a new tradition with these rapidly expanding social media tools. And, one of the major problems for our ‘tradition’ is that we have not done this before and few are comfortable with the uncharted. That is why, for this present, it is going to be leadership that paves the way. Some organizations, despite their rhetoric, don’t really want to risk leadership. I think this conversation will open some new ways of discussing the use of social media and may even help that 28-year-old become a leader in her firm as she shows your blog to her bosses.

  3. I feel bad for her, too, and as a newly-minted 60 something don’t understand why her 50 something bosses don’t follow her lead. Using twitter and a blog to publish press releases is spam. She should leave and go where she can blog to establish a voice and a following that benefits her employer.

    I remember some of these retro attitudes at PC Week in the mid 90s when the question was why give away our best print content for free on web. Well, we did and it was the right call. I like to think open mindedness has helped me survive as a journalist for 35 years. But those same retro attitudes have also haunted me serving in editorial management positions.

  4. Not to worry. Real Estate firms are on the endangered specie list. I predict in less than 5 years, you will not need a real estate agent to buy or sell a home. So these guys are toast anyway. Good! Why do you need to pay someone 6% to “sell” you home, when it’s a very easy search engine task to find or sell your home. Ah, isn’t web 2.0 awesome. Especially when it can get rid of stealtors, I mean realtors. And don’t forget, home prices never go down in value and are a great investment. Don’t throw your money away on rent, lol.

    bu buye.

  5. This is one of the fundamental shifts that companies need to understand, and without the corresponding culture shift, the efforts will be foundationless and shaky. Not only for groups that don’t really want to embrace openness, but for those who do, but don’t understand its implications. If every bit of communication doesn’t run the internal approval gauntlet, then it’s imperative that employees MUST be more tuned in to the company’s values, objectives and messages, or they may end up going rogue and saying things that are not in tune with where the company is. This means that acculturation becomes really key and must be ramped up so everyone is in tune.

    Not only is it a concern that people might be off message, but because of the casual, more chatty feel of social media interactions, it’s easy for people to forget that A) they are speaking in a VERY public forum, and B) that they are speaking as a (not THE, but definitely A) voice for the company they work for. Now maybe I’m oldschool (39), but This still makes me leery.

    An interesting (and very embarrassing) example of how this goes wrong recently happened with Adobe, and one of the very popular voices who is connected with their flagship product- Flash. Flash is one of (if not the) most key products in Adobe’s lineup. Lee Brimelow has been an ardent enthusiast and evangelist of Flash coding techniques for years. His and sites have garnered him a lot of attention, and a lot of people keep tabs on what he’s saying to stay abreast of where Flash is going. A few years back, Adobe finally hired this independent, and made him an official spokesperson to the Flash dev community.

    Recently, amidst the brouhaha over the iPad not supporting Flash, Lee posted a response to Steve Jobs’ demo ( that showed a dozen or so popular and/or “imporant” sites that use Flash as a key part of their experience. All had the ugly “missing plugin” boxes on them. Conceptually, it was a snappy retort to the hoopla over the new device. But bizarrely, one of the representative sites showing “how Flash is critical to the web” was a screenshot of a porn site (with the strategic part of the porn image blurred, but still quite clear what you were looking at). For at least a day, Brimelow posted responses to questions and criticisms with defenses that he felt this was somehow a legitimate way to represent Flash as a critical component of the web. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that this high-profile Adobe representative was linking Flash to porn, and then not only mentioning it, but posting a screenshot to drive his point home. After maybe a couple of days, the screenshot was removed with a lame apology note that seemed to miss the point completely. Lee’s take on it seemed to be more that he was taking it down as an accommodation to some prudish folks who were offended by it, rather than the fact that it was (last I checked) COMPLETELY inappropriate for porn to be part of the business dialog, not to mention that (hello?) Adobe might have some thoughts on the matter. Apparently, Mr. Brimelow’s own views convinced him it was perfectly fine, but (as you can see from the apology note), Adobe did not agree.

  6. Thanks for a fantastic story. While the incident may have been embarrassing to Adobe, I doubt there will be much long-term impact. One side benefit of openness is that it humanizes organizations. I think people realize that openness has its risks and are inclined to be forgiving when things don’t work out as planned. In contrast, organizations that try to look invincible suffer greater humiliation when they screw up.

  7. Thanks, John. I agree that giving away free content for free was the right choice, although not everyone shares that view. these days almost no one has the luxury of doing things the way they’ve always been done. The world changes too quickly and unless you’re constantly discarding assumptions and reinventing yourself, you become roadkill. As Seth Godin says in his new book, if you’re a middle manager making $80,000 a year, you should be very, very afraid.

  8. The need for management won’t go away, of course. For example, in organizations with large unionized workforces, the environment does not lend itself to individual empowerment. However, those industries are becoming a smaller part of the US economy. If you believe that the future lies with businesses that create value through innovation, then leadership is really the only way to govern.

  9. “Over time, I believe all companies will have to give up the belief that they can control their markets, because interconnected customers are an unstoppable force.” I would have to agree, there is power in unity.

  10. The fallibility factor you bring up is an important one, as people want companies to show more humility and accountability -acting on a more human scale. Rather than dealing with great talking monuments, people want to talk with the guy behind the curtain – no more Wizard of Oz. The other thing that I think is important to consider is the fracturing of communications. Instead of there just being a single, unified message being spewed out through all channels, there is a kind of woven, composite message coming from many sources – harmonious (hopefully) but not monolithic. This effectively bulkheads things a bit so that a misstep taken on one channel doesn’t have to mean the derailing of the whole thing. This diversified, heterogeneous approach can be presented to the people in power as a risk-mitigation strategy. It can also bite companies on the rear if they are found talking out of both sides of their mouth. Ultimately, it seems that the new way is more like real people actually interact, which is both the biggest selling point, and the biggest red flag 🙂

    Key though, is understanding that when you go “open”, everyone is now part of the marketing and PR dept, and you need to get them all on page with the whole team.

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