Andrea Learned

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You May Lead, But Do You Influence?

301264773_f908060a5f_zWho are the leaders in corporate sustainability? When you hear that question, do you think of an individual or a brand name? The average business-aware person would likely spout brand names like Unilever or Coca Cola, given the coverage they get for various sustainability related practices. But, does knowing that these corporations “lead” mean they also influence others in learning and furthering sustainability in the broader sense? Not necessarily.

Individuals have much more power to influence.

Consider Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman as a theoretical example. He represents a global entity that has gained a lot of credibility in recent years for innovative sustainability practices across brands and continents. But, how many interested parties have built what feels like human-scale connection with him? Is there a way to sense what may drive him personally or what might be at the root of the positive change he guides at Unilever? Imagine the potential of his influence if there were.

Taking Time for Executive Influence

It is understandable, of course, that C-Suite executives might not feel they have time to truly connect with their many and varied stakeholder audiences. But, in this digital world, social media should be seen as an incredible way to get around those constraints. To be sure, those who do effectively engage on social networks are not “finding” time so much as they are “taking” time to invest in social capital building.

And, taking versus finding time can be the difference in developing real influence. It simply involves more intention and strategy to deliver the most powerful results.

In fact, as corporate responsibility author/consultant Alice Korngold mentions in her April 2014 HuffingtonPost piece (citing the BRANDFog 2014 Social CEO Survey ) : “61 percent of US respondents and 50 percent of UK respondents are more likely to purchase from a company whose values and leadership are clearly communicated through executive leadership participation on social media.”

That should be a compelling enough reason for executives to “take time” to develop influence using social media. As someone who herself has discovered the power of Twitter, Korngold notes in her piece:

“The point is that through your most compelling spokesperson — your CEO — the one whom the whole world is watching, your company can tell its own story, unfiltered, when it wants (first, if you’re smart), and how it wants. And that your CEO can listen to customers, employees, investors and the community directly.”

Sustainability Twitterati

A 2013 piece on the sustainability “Twitterati” serves as a good baseline for considering the influence development of some of the key leaders (not necessarily in C-Suite).  While Greenbiz combined Klout and PeerIndex scores for their original number (which I put in parentheses), I am citing just the leader’s Klout score here. Bruno Sarda of Dell (46 Greenbiz score) now has a 60 Klout; Niall Dunne of BT (57 Greenbiz score) now shows a 64 Klout; and, Lynelle Cameron of Autodesk – who had been considered a Twitterati novice/”lurker” a year ago (27 Greenbiz score)  – now has a 44 Klout, which would definitely put her in the Greenbiz “learner” category today.  (To better understand what social media scores really mean, this is a helpful article).

Yet, more important than the numbers or the variety of ways they can be calculated, it’s about what and how these people share.  In looking at the streams of just these three, what you don’t see are merely company announcements or news. That sort of “push” approach does not build relationships and trust. Instead, you’ll notice these folks tend to share thoughtful links to research, articles and other content that elevate and amplify the progress of sustainable business overall – as well as news about their own company’s activities. Their feeds also likely reflect a hint or two of the human being beyond their business profiles, proving they each have spouses, kids, or things they do when they are not working.

Why does this matter? It’s about empathy and communications. Even an occasional glimpse at the personal gives followers more human-scale reasons to trust an individual influencer in business.

Compared with corporate leaders, startup leaders are a bit different. They have a somewhat counter-intuitive advantage in developing social influence. In many cases, startup leaders operate from a clean slate with the opportunity to develop their back-story and “social cred” much more intentionally. Of course, though their reasons for turning to social media are more likely driven by economic necessity, they benefit immensely from that hardship. Social media provides the least expensive way to raise brand awareness. Maxine Bedat of Zady would be one such example of humanizing and social media influence-building in action. She is an individual reflection of a socially savvy brand with human-scale accessibility and storytelling in its DNA.

Anecdotally, I’ve certainly been more interested in  learning about corporate sustainability leadership by following a few key individuals on Twitter rather than by following a corporate account or monitoring press releases. For instance, I might not be motivated to meet someone from Campbell’s Soup at a sustainability conference, per se, but I AM excited to say hello to a guy I’ve connected with a bit through Twitter, Dave Stangis. And, if I love what AutoDesk is up to in the sustainability space, it is less about their press releases on the topic and more about getting to “know”  Lynelle Cameron (we’ve never met), and learning from what she shares. Finally, if I want to get a better understanding of what’s behind the Kimberly-Clark coporate take on sustainability, I will be much less likely to follow their official accounts and more likely to get to know Peggy Ward‘s perspective on it all.

To be sure, there is a difference between the perception of “knowing” someone on Twitter and really knowing that person well. The opportunity for an executive lies in being as much of the “real” human he or she is, yet still having the ability to curate what gets shared while maintaining the desired level of privacy. Done well, a developing social influencer might share very little from their personal life, yet still share enough overall (professional and personal) to give followers the sense of a human connection . That is the sweet spot (and people like those I mentioned above could surely speak to their own approaches and comfort levels).

Leading Excludes, Influencing Includes

Finally, there can be a perception of “leaders” –whether brand or individual – as being “other” or set apart, above the rest, and less accessible.  Influencers who are savvy with social media, on the other hand (and in my opinion), are more likely to be accessible and to be authentically engaged with the broader sustainability community. They will have developed regular opportunities to serve as a resource for their networks by sharing great links or forging offline partnerships that develop from online connecting. Mutual trust takes consistency and managed expectations to build. Ultimately, the range of stakeholders following savvy, individual influencers will more likely give the brand the benefit of the doubt, should bumps in the road develop.

Social media engagement is a powerful way to develop human-to-human (H2H) influence that only enhances perceived corporate leadership in any industry. With an eye on sustainability leadership development in particular: why are so few executives tapping its potential?


Special thanks to WolfWorld for use of the image.