The power of digital is reshaping our society at a startling rate. How do you cope in a world in which 1.5 billion people use social media to communicate and collaborate, five billion customers leverage their mobile phones to conduct commerce and share information, and 2.5 quintillion new pieces of data are generated every day? Top executives today have little choice but to be digitally savvy. But should you join the fray and add your voice to the social media cacophony?

I believe the answer is yes. If you look at what most leading business schools are saying about life in the 21st century, they emphasise that your personal network and sphere of influence should be your number one priority. And being active on social media – such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest – is the new way of broadening and strengthening that network.

Being a member of the social set can also improve the image of your company and boost its reputation. This is especially crucial if your company is consumer facing – you can’t be disconnected from the digital realities of your customers, employees and investors. Your brand and your reputation need to be managed on social media in the most authentic way possible. Political leaders such as David Cameron and Barack Obama understand this very well. They are regular tweeters – even Pope Francis is active on Twitter. Leaders today can’t afford to be perceived as being unapproachable and untouchable.

If you and the rest of your leadership team don’t feel particularly socially shrewd, consider hiring young millennials to mentor you. You can also get a digitally savvy employee who understands your business well to engage on social media on your behalf, or at least monitor conversations to highlight any urgent issues immediately. A word of caution, though: if someone else ‘ghost writes’ for you – for example, your marketing or public relations team – you’ll need to set clear boundaries as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. Consumers can spot ‘marketing speak’ a mile off, and authenticity is paramount.

As you start your journey to becoming a digitally enabled leader, consider the following:

  • Keep your messages short and clear – if you can’t say it in 140 characters, don’t say it
  • Respond to social media conversations calmly and professionally – don’t react emotionally, especially to negative comments or criticism
  • Show your fun side – your audience needs to know you are approachable and ‘one of them’
  • Avoid voicing strong opinions – stick to your company’s key messages
  • Don’t slander anyone else – especially not your competition
  • Don’t overshare – one tweet or post per day is more than adequate
  • If you decide to engage, you need to remain engaged – it will not reflect well on your company if you disconnect suddenly
  • Remember that social media can be very distracting, and it can become addictive!

Ultimately, social media can’t beat real interaction with real people, and virtual networks don’t enable the deep dialogue needed to stimulate innovation, creativity and solutions required for a company to grow. But being active on social media is a marvellous opportunity to gain company exposure, foster long-term loyalty among customers and taking a business to new heights. Top executives who remain seated on the sidelines in the era of digital networking are doing not only themselves, but also their organisations a huge disservice.

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