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.