If you can lead, you can be effective in social media

Trading fives - in Jazz leadership moves aroundI recently participated in an in-person discussion about leadership attended by a number of people I know through social media. Because the instigators of the discussion, Pam Hoelzle and Ethan Yarbrough, publicized the event online, the composition of the group and the conversation itself were flavored by a social media perspective. The discussion delivered several valuable takeaways, but one idea that stood out because it was useful and a little counterintuitive was this: Effective social media participation is like effective leadership.

By “effective social media participation” I mean purposefully interacting with people via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media to find people and information we need to accomplish business and personal goals.

By “effective leadership” I mean motivating high performing people to work towards a common purpose, whether or not we are are the “manager” of those folks (one can lead by influence even when one isn’t in a position of authority).

During our discussion three common threads came out that connect effective social media participation and effective leadership: selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Selection. In both social media and leadership we benefit by choosing our contributors carefully.

In the context of social media I often call this “filtering”. A LOT of potentially useful information is Tweeted, blogged, Buzzed, or otherwise published by people analyzing (or simply regurgitating) what they discover. In fact, there is so much of this information, and meta-information, there isn’t nearly enough time to skim it all efficiently much less read it all. After participating in social media for a time–if it wasn’t obvious to us from the beginning–most of us recognize that just because someone Tweets brilliantly and has a large following doesn’t mean we’ll find the time to read their stuff very often (sorry, @StephenFry). Social media is best managed like a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet: even something that looks very tasty won’t make it onto our plates if taking it would require sacrificing something we desire even more. In social media an information source must be consistently relevant and efficient for our purposes to be useful, not just beautiful in our sight.

Similarly, in a leadership context an impressive resume is just a starting point when determining whether there’s a good fit between a potential team member and a position on our team. Which is why personal relationships and recommendations from people we trust are so valuable when recruiting team members–and when choosing social media sources. One must be selective to be effective.

Delegation is the powerful outcome of good contributor selection in both social media and leadership. Whether social media networks or work groups, ideally we implicitly trust our teams to produce quality results for us. Otherwise we’re tempted to second guess our contributors, which deprives them of the rewards of our recognition, duplicates effort, and leads us down the path of information overload. Like we trust the curator of an art gallery to collect and display a worthy collection or art, like we trust the editors of our favorite publications to discover and accurately portray stories for us, like we trust our auto mechanics to keep our cars running, we should trust our teams to do their jobs. If and when we don’t feel we can rely on our team, whether we’re working as a leader or as a participant in social media, that’s a not-so-subtle sign that we will benefit from improving our approach towards selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Reciprocation. Both social media and leadership require reciprocation to be sustainable. Other people contribute to our successes, and we contribute to theirs. That’s the nature of the bargain. The biggest mistake I see would-be social media “power users” and would-be leaders make is not focusing enough on what success looks like for their team members. A true leader (as distinguished from a “manager”) provides team members with what they value above and beyond their pay checks, for example, by encouraging them to take responsibilities that will help them develop personally and professionally. And just as leadership requires more than a checkbook and a list of instructions for employees to follow, social media mastery requires more than pumping out branded messages to subscribers. Social media rock stars listen to what is said in their networks, recognize needs, and respond by offering referrals, links, analysis, or whatever else they have to help meet those needs.

Vision. Last but not least: to be effective in either social media or leadership we must communicate a clear, consistent vision that lets people know what we want them to contribute, and thus (directly or indirectly) what they will be rewarded for contributing. If we can’t sustain the insight we need to define and communicate our vision we’ll have a difficult time selecting people who can contribute to it, and neither we nor our team members will be particularly good at providing what the other needs.

One final thought. As a leader, or as a participant in social media, we get out what we put in. Just as putting time, focus and energy into leadership is essential to be an effective leader, putting time, focus and energy into social media is essential to be effective in social media. Those of us who believe leadership or social media are among our core responsibilities are thus obligated to make studying and practicing our craft a high priority for so long as we wish to be effective.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the conversation, including but not limited to: Moderators @pamhoelzle and @Ethany; graphic interpreter @pdobrowolski; hosts @petechee and @alyssamag; and @jdkovarik, @colleencar, @ShaunaCausey, @coolguygreg, @cherylnichols, @RJHSeattle, @pmcmortgages, @blainemillet, and @shannonevans (there were other folks not mentioned here but I don’t have their details). The opinions in this post are my own, and these folks may or may not agree with what is written here, but either way I benefited from their contributions.

Social media and retirees

The owner of an online-only business recently asked me whether I thought social media should be used to reach out to retired people. Because he had received a number of telephone calls from older customers having trouble with his online application, his fear was that very few retired people were computer literate enough to complete a transaction on his web site or to use social media.

A recent Nielsen survey revealed that 17.5 million people aged 65 years and older now use the internet. Of that group, approximately half (8.75 million) use the internet to send email, read news, do online banking, and use social networks. (Citation: http://mashable.com/2009/12/10/seniors-online-habits/ ). As such, one would have to assume that at least 9 million retirees are computer literate enough to be high value customers for any online business. They can be acquired through the same combination of media outreach as other consumers online, and they can be serviced at the low marginal cost of an online transaction.

I also asked for input from a friend who held a  strategic role during a formative period at Amazon.com (for a number of years Amazon didn’t even publish a telephone number for customer service inquiries, as you may recall). He harumphed, then opined that besides being more than capable of completing online transactions, retired people can be quite viral because they are likely to use their leisure time to share product and services information with their friends.

Certainly, some number of people from any given demographic – including retirees – will have trouble with every web site. But so long as you focus on making your site user friendly, don’t be afraid of reaching out to retired people through social media. They may just find you, and tell their friends.