Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader?

Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader?
Does Social Business Require a C-Level Leader - SideraWorks

There are very few truly holistic roles in an organization.

The CEO is responsible for the strategic direction of the company. The CIO handles information flow throughout the organization. Heads of HR work with every department on recruiting, hiring, and employee development.

At some point, the horizontal (and to some extent, central) nature of these roles became important enough to create positions at the most senior levels. Ideally, the people in those positions have relationships with all the different functional areas, learning their needs and creating strategies that are both tailored to those business areas and directly in support of the organization’s most high-level strategic goals.

When we talk about the nature of social business, however, we talk about the need to both distribute responsibility and accountability throughout the company as well as develop a framework or infrastructure that can provide consistency and stability around social initiatives.

What kind of new leadership does that require?

There’s been some discussion about the convergence of roles like the CIO and CMO in a social era. Some companies have gone so far as to create Chief Social Officer roles or something similar.

The holistic nature of social business could also outline a case that the CEO needs to be the one to invest in and lead the charge for this mindset since it’s very success depends on embedding social into both the culture and operations of the company. Social business success for the long term necessarily requires buy-in at that level eventually, if not at its nascent stage.

But if we’re creating a new model for business, or more models within businesses in order to transform them, does that require yet another functional executive role? Or is that defeating the entire purpose?

This isn’t as easy a question to answer as it might seem.

On the idealistic side, social business would be “owned” by everyone in the organization and it would be self-perpetuating. Everyone would buy into the vision and the purpose, and they’d be able to self-organize, self-regulate, and self-direct.

On the structural and scalability side, having consistency and some kind of mechanisms in place – whether operational or cultural – could very well demonstrate that an organization needs an individual who owns (and is ultimately responsible for) the vision and enablement of social business ideals. To act as a proxy, if you will, for the vision that the CEO ultimately has for the company, and to tie social business practices back to that.

We host a great deal of discussion around the characteristics of social leadership: openness, creativity, tolerance for failure, appetite for innovation, trust, empowerment.

But what does that look like in application?

Here are a few questions to mull over that don’t, as of yet, have really clear answers.

  • Do we need Chief “Social” Officers, or does that undermine the entire philosophy of social business?
  • Do we need to embrace the initial chaos of a leaderless and truly distributed model while companies learn to adapt? Is anyone really willing to take on that kind of risk and accountability?
  • Are there existing roles in companies today that should be taking this on? More than one?
  • Can the characteristics of executive roles we’ve designed today translate effectively into a social business era?
  • Is “social” too narrow of a focus? Too broad?
  • What about roles that focus on collaboration, customer experience, or other concepts? Do they achieve the same aims?

What do we think?

Frankly, we’ve had a lot of discussion about this. Between ourselves, and with our clients as they try to answer this very question.

What we’ve talked about at length is the idea of a bridge role, a role whose job is to steward social business now, because that’s the disruptive force in business. As a few years go by and organizations are better able to distribute the leadership for social business and embed it more deeply into their operations and culture, maybe that person works themselves out of that role and into another. A chief disruptor, if you will. Someone who can always work in concert with the CEO to deliver leadership vision across the organization, but then work to harness disruptive forces in the industry and align them with the realities of business.

The trick with a Chief Social Officer? “Social” won’t always be the focus, or the way we identify these business practices. “Collaboration” may not be focused enough, but it has some promise because it’s rooted in the philosophy, not the function. So the real question is finding the common denominator for a new era of leadership that isn’t just about the web, but about learning to be an adaptive business as a whole, no matter what comes next.

Social business leadership is going to be a critical question to answer in the next couple of years. The models are just now starting to take discernible shape, which means we’ve yet to know for sure whether the CSO roles are part of the solution, or just a reiteration of the very problem of overly-hierarchical, fractured organizations we’re trying to solve.

What do you think?

Amber is the president of SideraWorks, a culture and organizational transformation firm. She's also the best-selling author of the social business book The Now Revolution. You can find her on twitter at @ambercadabra.
  • BlogWorld CEO

    Great post Amber and great questions to be asking. I will take on just
    one of them or I would be leaving far too long of a comment =p.

    “Do we need Chief “Social” Officers, or does that undermine the entire philosophy of social business?”

    It depends on the company. Every business needs someone to be in charge of social. Some businesses definitely need a chief social officer.

    I know some people don’t believe it. Some think this doesn’t apply to their business. As our friend Jason Falls would say…. Bullshit.

    Does anyone see the news about social business going away? NO. It gets bigger and broader every day. The terms may change, from new media, to conversational media to social media to social business or content marketing but every single day whatever you want to call this gets bigger and more important to every single business in the world.

    Sure you can get away with not addressing this next quarter, maybe even next year or the next five years but unless you are running a business that has more customers than it needs, that everyone in the world loves and never makes any customer unhappy then why would you ignore the biggest communication revolution in history?

    The answers to that question are pretty simple. Because you are lazy, because you are stupid or because you are complacent.

    I think I am ranting now, so I will shut up 8).

    • Amber Naslund

      There’s no question that social isn’t going away. That’s not really the argument I’m making here (and I’m long past trying to convince the willfully ignorant. Helping frame the business case? Sure. Convincing you that you have to pay attention at all? No).

      The question isn’t whether social is going away, but *how* we develop the structure and leadership of our organizations to evolve in that direction. Our existing business models buckle under the strain of open communication and collaborative, decentralized initiatives. That’s the problem we have to solve, and the question still remains: who leads it and how?

      My gut and experience says we’ll try a number of models in different organizations. Some will fail miserably, and others as always will emerge as viable for others to adopt or to adapt to their needs. I think we need someone to lead in the meantime, because that’s a familiar construct. But I think we need to be doing that with the INTENT to move away from that kind of top-down, hierarchical leadership in the future and embed social in the organization at all levels as part of the culture and mindset, not just the mechanics.

  • Jon P

    I’ve noticed that companies who have a strong set of values, rooted in the way they treat their customers are the most able to adapt to change. They have a foundation from which to make many adaptive decisions, even at levels far below the executive suite.

    Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, notably opined that your culture is your brand. And if that’s true, then the answer to your query above might be that a Chief Culture Officer is needed to steward in a new era of social business within an organization. This executive’s role might be to educate employees on the meaning of the company’s values, show how they work in everyday interactions, and demonstrate (through promotions and bonuses) how they are the basis for a rewarding career within the organization.

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    Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader? – SideraWorks Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader? – SideraWorks


    Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader? – SideraWorks Does Social Business Need a C-Level Leader? – SideraWorks

  • @steveplunkett

    that would be the person who is on the companies twitter account? hmmm

  • Amber Naslund

    Not remotely, Steve. I’m kind of unclear where you got something like Twitter from this post? Perhaps I can clear up something I may have said that’s confusing.

  • Jamie Sandford

    One of the concepts that I always found intriguing that Frank Eliason mentioned once was the idea of a “Chief Culture Officer” — someone who would ensure that the culture and persona of the company permeated all customer interaction opportunities. For businesses that have multiple customer interaction endpoints, I could see where this would be a nice addition. The argument to this is that one could say that a CEO is supposed to be the person who embodies the culture of a company and it’s up to the “indians” to ensure that culture gets ingrained in the organizational components.

    I’m not sure, though, that a “Chief Social Officer” is the way to go any more than there should be a “Chief Billboard Officer” or “Chief Radtio/TV Officer”. It’s a channel and I think we just need to ensure that businesses understand how to incorporate social as a facet of business initiatives. How do we do that? I think that businesses using the SMAC concept (social media advisory council) can supplement the need for a single position by crowdsourcing the guiding of business units through decision making that involves social. Let your socially active employees be the guide to steer the ship. Let them show departments how that social might be integrated into their initiatives since they can be the micro-level bridge between the business/departments and social.

    Just my $.02.

  • Amber Naslund

    I’m not sure I agree with the “social is just a channel” thing. As a marketing or service mechanism, that may be true. But as a *mindset* – which I think is the intent of social business – it’s much more than that. The platforms represent potential for concepts that go beyond just “this is a new channel for sharing stuff”. If it were just that, I’d totally agree with you.

    I actually think I agree that a CSO or something similar isn’t a long term play anyway; like I said above, I think if we’re adding a new executive role, it needs to be considered from a much broader perspective, i.e. what role does this person serve/represent when social becomes just a part of the way we do business? Do they go away like the “webmaster” did, or do they evolve into a more holistic collaboration & culture role?

    I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that the council approach can also be expected to guide the ship, at least right away. Unless you’re a company that has successfully stewarded programs that are self-governed and organized before, that’s a recipe for chaos on many levels. I firmly believe that command-and-control isn’t the answer either, but the real question is how to bridge the gap from that model to something more independent and decentralized without throwing everything upside-down.