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The CEO of a global technology firm was invited to lecture at a local university on the future of the internet. After his presentation, a student in the audience asked him for his views on network neutrality: the idea that internet service providers shouldn’t base their prices on the content their customers access. The CEO answered candidly, arguing in favour of price discrimination based on content; there was an engaging exchange; and he left satisfied with his visit.

Little did he know that, in the coming days, his semiprivate comments would enter a very public realm – the blogosphere – unleashing a storm of controversy around him and his company. (For confidentiality, names have not been revealed.)

The executive had no active social media presence – no profile on Facebook or Linkedin, no Twitter account, no blog on the company’s website. He had decided that social media weren’t “his thing.” In fact, he became aware of the buzz over his comments only after some people in the company alerted his communications group. There were lengthy discussions about whether and how to respond. Customers and other stakeholders were participating in the debate online, arguing strongly in favour of net neutrality. Employees were watching. Should the company issue and official response to comments in a private setting? Could the CEO wade into the public discussion when ha had never been active in the blogosphere and had no other social media platform? In the end, he and his team did nothing, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and helpless.

For a comparison, consider the ease with which Tom Dickson, founder and CEO of small U.S. blender manufacturer Blendtec, uses social media. Until 2006, few people had heard of Dickson; today there aren’t many business owners who haven’t. That’s because Dickson is the star of the Will It Blend? Series of YouTube videos, in which he subjects a host of objects (marbles, computer games, an iPod, an iPhone, an iPad) to the sharp blades of his products. Thanks to the campaign’s popularity (the iPhone-blending video has been viewed more than 9 million times), Blendtec’s sales have increased sevenfold in the past three years – impressive when you consider that each video lasts only about two minutes and is produced for a few hundred dollars.

Dickson, a grandfather, had no idea what YouTube was when his marketing director pitched the video idea. Now he is an internet rock star – a popular radio and television guest (with appearances on The Tonight Show and Today), a sought after speaker on viral marketing, and a frequent participant in music videos and other companies’ advertising campaigns. Thanks to the internet’s global reach and his affable, down-to-earth manner, Dickson has developed a strong personal brand. Employees are proud of the recognition Blendtec has received, and thousands of fans have sent suggestions for his next video. How many CEOs of the Fortune 500 can claim such connection with the people they want to influence?

A Connected World

It’s no secret that social media – global, open, transparent, non-hierarchical, interactive, and real-time – are changing consumer behaviour and workplace expectations. As a result, the best businesses are creating comprehensive strategies in this are to support their goals. However, my research on the organisational implications of social media and consulting work with dozens of companies in America, Europe, and Asia suggest that it is taking longer for corporate leaders to consider what the new paradigm means for them personally.

Take the world’s leading CEO’s as a sample. According to data from Fisheye Analytics, the top 50 chief executives (as identified by Morten T. Hansen, Herminia Ibarra, and Urs Peyer in “The Best-Performing CEOs in the World,” HBR January – February 2010) are increasingly discussed in online venues, but few are using social media to spread their own messages: Only 19 were on Facebook only six had LinkedIn page, and only two – Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Norilsk Nickel CEO Mikhail Prokhorov – were tweeting or blogging (although some used their corporate pages for blog). Anecdotal evidence suggests that the story is the same for leaders below the CEO level and that even those who have a social media presence aren’t unit strategically. That is a mistake.

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