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3 leadership lessons from social media disasters

The way we lead in the real world only gets amplified on social media hence the shift in leadership must happen offline as well.

I was quoted recently in the Harvard Business Review in a piece on managing social media disasters. While such disasters should certainly be managed, one must also learn from them. Social media is a microcosm that in many ways reflects the world we live in. Leading on social media requires you to be mindful of the ways leadership must change even in the real world today. Hence, I often use the term LeaderSHIFT to emphasize the shifts the leaders have to make in leading both online and offline. Let us see how:

A LinkedIn connection request gone wrong: Kelly Blasek, the CEO of the Cleveland job bank, was approached by a young job seeker on LinkedIn for a connection. Kelly responded with a meltdown email noting her disgust at the sense of entitlement of the applicant’s “generation” to use networks of senior people and Kelly’s ‘pleasure’ at not accepting the invite[i]. The job applicant put the email on social media and it circulated widely, forcing Kelly to apologize for her stance.

Lesson: In a multi-generational workforce, people’s approach to networking and connection can vary widely. And while you certainly don’t need to accept every invite if you don’t want to, remember that on social media when you talk to one person you talk to their entire network – so if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all – but you don’t need social media to teach you that!

Also in the age of reverse mentoring and flat organizational structures, seniority and competence must not be confounded. How could Kelly be sure that this job seeker was not the next Mark Zuckerberg or Whatsapp creator?

A Tweet that never connected: Toronto’s Mayoral hopeful Karen Stintz tweeted recently on how she was just like everyone else that followed her in that she had a mortgage, a car, kids and soccer games[ii]. The tweet seemed harmless enough but there was a backlash from people who rented homes, used public transport or needed affordable child care.

Lesson: The diversity and inclusion lens has to be part of the genetic makeup of a leader today. You cannot be a competent leader if you do not understand the diversity of voices and interests you are meant to lead and represent. The senior leadership team of any company must reflect the diversity and complexity of the world they live in both thinking and action – online and offline.

British Airways hears it: Hasan Syed’s father lost his luggage on flying Business Class in British Airways. The airline did not respond to his complaints so he spent over a $1,000 to promote a tweet about the bad service of BA. He did this just to make sure that the bad service was highlighted to a wider network.

Lesson: Leaders must understand that employees and clients have always had a choice (to walk away), but now they also have a voice, and it can be heard on social media.

There is no point in lining up a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to talk about how much you care about your customers when a single customer tweet can damage your reputation so quickly. Investment in relationships in the real world and online is the key to managing your brand. Inter-generational collaboration, a diverse and increasingly global landscape, along with the power of one are trends that leaders have to be mindful of both online and offline.

How we choose to lead in the real world simply gets amplified on social media due to the reach of the medium. That doesn’t mean you abandon the medium, it means you abandon old ways of leading because social media is here to stay. It represents an opportunity space leaders should capitalize on.

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