Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Association Leadership

Here's another HBR post that got me thinking. This one is about "social" CEOs — leaders of multinational corporations who are comfortable with social media. They blog, have Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, or engage with the public using YouTube.

Turns out they are few and far between. One who does it, Forrester CEO George Colony, diagnoses the problem like this:

As time has passed, I have come to see fear as the greatest barrier to overcome — whether it's in my decision-making, communication, tennis game, or in the setting of strategic direction. To fear feedback from customers ... is to ignore the most relevant raw material for improving your products and services. Sure, it's not nice to get negative reviews — but CEOs are paid to seek out and understand the brutal truths.

There is a real reluctance, evidently, at the top of many for-profit organizations, for opening oneself up to transparency and criticism.

It's an interesting read. And it poses an interesting challenge for those of us who run associations. Are we any different?

As I look around the landscape, I see many associations who have embraced social media and who have made it work as a communications and engagement tool for their organizations. Their members gather, connect and learn through association-sponsored social networks. Their staff people push ideas, moderate discussions and interact openly with members on association blogs and in association forums. But how many association CEOs get personally engaged in these activities?

The HBR post cites a study that found only 36% the largest company's CEOs communicate through company websites or social media channels in any way. The study says that when CEOs do go social, and venture beyond the standard shareholder letter, they are most likely to post statements or messages on their company websites (28%), next most likely to be featured in video or podcasts on their corporate websites or company YouTube channels (18%) and least likely, (less than 10%) to use Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

I'd say those numbers hold true for association CEOs as well. Why are so many not engaged with social media, either personally or on behalf of their organizations? If you ask them, I'm sure you'll get some very predictable reasons. They don't have the time. They're concerned about the legal liability. They don't understand what the fuss is about.

But if you dig a little deeper I think you'll find another motivation that's driving some of them. There's the fear that George Colony talks about — the fear of negative feedback. But there's something else at work and I'll call it loathing — a deep reluctance to engage with their own members because they suspect they lack the capacity to fully satisfy their needs. And this comes, I think, because too often association CEOs force all of their member connections into a purely transactional format. "Tell me what you need," they essentially ask, "and I'll connect you to the association program that best satisfies you." If they can't do that — and often they can't — then they view that as a failure, something that reflects poorly on them and their association.

It doesn't have to be this way. And social media, a tool that allows for a longer arc of social dialogue, can actually provide a path away from this transactional mindset and towards one that is more collaborative and conversational. If only more CEOs would see it that way.

Image by andrellv


Jamie Notter said...

Truly human organizations are courageous. And I predict the human organizations will outpace the more mechanical ones moving forward.

Eric Lanke said...

I'd like to think so, Jamie. But isn't there something fundamentally mechanical about the organization--at least the organization as most people currently understand it?

Jamie Notter said...

Yes. There are mechanical elements to organizations. But not as "fundamentally" as we currently think it is, and that's a big problem.

Eric Lanke said...

Perception is reality, isn't it. We think organizations have to be a certain way, and therefore they are.

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