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May 20, 2010

Thoughts on leadership in the social era

Leadership Charlene Li's book Open Leadership has generated some discussion about what it means to lead in a social world. I wanted to share some thoughts about leadership in the social era from our own research for Empowered.

Empowered includes lessons on leadership from Scott Cook, founder of Intuit; Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts; Bary Judge, CMO of Best Buy; and the management at Dell Computer. You've read about some of these companies before, and you'll read about them again -- it's not coincidence. Many, many companies have created social applications. Very few have transformed themselves as a result.

As you'll recall, we talk about HEROes -- highly empowered and resourceful operatives -- and the applications they create. HEROes move quickly to serve customers. This can create chaos. It takes a different management technique to stimulate this innovation without allowing the company to devolve into a welter of random projects.

The challenge, as Clayton Christensen pointed out in The Innovator's Dilemma, is that your competitors -- including little startups -- are innovating at this speed already. You have to embrace this innovation and manage it, or you'll get eaten up from below.

Here are few principles we've found that are common in companies that are encouraging and managing HERO activity well:

  1. Share strategy continuously, especially changes in strategy. When Rob Katz changed Vail Resorts' media strategy to focus on social and short-lead media, he hired Mike Slone away from Razorfish to run his social application. Furthermore, he walked the talk -- look at this blog post from popular music-industry blogger Bob Lefsetz about how Katz engaged with him and solved his problem on Twitter. Slone's department doesn't just respond to tweets, it helps create and promote video of what's actually happening on the slopes, working with the existing staffers at each of Vail's multiple resorts. Leadership means not just changing strategy, but communicating with your actions, not just your words, how you will support that strategy.
  2. Embrace half-baked ideas. Best Buy's marketing can move fast because Barry Judge is willing to support plans that aren't completely baked -- and he emphasized this half-baked quality in his interviews with me. That includes things like posting TV ads on his blog, opening up the API's to bestbuy.com for other sites to use, and engaging the whole sales and support organization for Twitter response: the Twelpforce. Allof these ideas had risk associated with them. None of them were completely debugged before they went live. But Best Buy launched them anyway, and adapted. Embracing this kind of innovation kicks your workforce and its customer-focused creativity into high gear.
  3. Use councils to coordinate. There are over 100 social initiatives at Dell. Manish Mehta, Dell's VP of social media and community, is in charge of herding these cats. They don't report to him -- that's no way to stimulate innovation. Instead, Manish meets with representatives from all the major departments working on these activities weekly in a council, looking for best practices and efficiencies. Top-down is not the answer. Neither is chaos. Seeking commonalities in creative applications from around the company -- and around the world -- is the way to go. It also helps alleviate the "does anyone else around here understand what I'm going through?" feeling that social developers often get.
  4. Celebrate failure. In Empowered, Scott Cook says "we have a high tolerance for experiments." And he acknowledges that most of them will fail. As long as you can prove you've learned something, there is not a penalty for failure. Look at how Jeff Bezos treated a high-profile failure in this Wired article (scroll down to the Jason Kilar part) -- he just acknowledges it and moves on.
  5. Celebrate success. Don't overlook the power of an attaboy and an inscribed chunk of lucite. HEROes need public encouragement. At Comcast, service standouts get the Bowtie Award, named after company founder Ralph Roberts. An email celebrating a successful HERO project is never out of place. We celebrate success at Forrester a lot -- we have company meetings almost monthly, give out a lot of Veuve Cliquot champagne, and recognize values like collaboration and creativity. One of the Brits who used to work here called these "happy clappy" meetings (there's an awful lot of applause) but people love to get recognized.

What has been your experience with leadership in the social era?

Photo credit: Pedrosimoes7.

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