(Editor’s Note: This week, TalentCulture founder, Meghan M. Biro is speaking at the Peoplefluent WISDOM2013 Conference about a topic that is central to the world of work: “Leadership, Workplace Culture and Brand Influence.” In the spirit of her presentation, we’re sharing one of many articles Meghan has written about this topic. We hope it’s the next-best thing to being there!)
Recently, I consulted with a software company as it navigated through a treacherous sea change — the upheaval of its organizational culture. This shift was triggered when my client hired a Chief Technology Officer from another company – not exactly a competitor, but a company in an adjacent market space. However, technology market spaces aren’t entirely independent — and in this case, the overlap only added fuel to an already volatile clash of personalities. Needless to say, the change wasn’t graceful or happy. In fact, it was a nasty, stressful process. And for those of us who mopped up the mess, it was a sobering wake-up call.
Faceoff: Old Workplace Culture Meets New
The previous workplace culture was cut-throat and intensely political. However, the workforce knew and accepted those rules. The organization had been socialized.
When the new CTO arrived, he imposed his own culture – one that obscured motives and withheld explicit information from employees. Suddenly without warning, people were receiving email messages saying that their jobs had changed and their staffs had been reassigned. Plans and strategies were were not discussed. Details were not communicated. Nothing was socialized.
The company quickly began hemorrhaging top talent, much to the dismay of its puzzled CEO. This exodus was good news for industry recruiters (fresh job vacancies to fill), but it was clearly a bad scene for the company and its employer brand. Even worse, a few former employees started blogging about the drama. The message wasn’t pretty, and in today’s socially hyper-connected world, word traveled fast. That made recruiting high-caliber talent a far more challenging task. Even today, recovery remains a long, rough road.
Social Connection: The Missing Link
Of course, none of this had to happen. What could have prevented the chaos? In my opinion, if the organization’s senior executives had been socially adept, I would be telling an entirely different story. Perhaps to some people it sounds insignificant, but social leadership can make all the difference.
Socially savvy, engaged leaders share a set of skills that help protect their organizations from the havoc of sudden, devastating change. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that change can be healthy — and often it’s necessary. But successful large-scale cultural change requires finesse and an understanding of the “human side” of business.
In this case, the company hired an outsider to change its technical direction. That part is normal and appropriate. But the CEO didn’t anticipate the painful change in culture that would follow, or the subsequent loss of valued employees. It’s not because the CEO is weak, but because he lacked critical social skills.
In my practice, I work with lots of leaders seeking to expand their teams and make their workplace culture attractive for both potential new employees and current ones. Some clients are very socially aware and engaged. Some are socially tone-deaf and isolated from what’s happening both within the walls of their own companies, and across the broader business landscape. Both types of leaders can be successful to a point – the point where trust, loyalty, values and expectations affect financial performance and company growth.
Being a socially engaged leader is not an innate skill. However, it’s increasingly necessary in today’s networked business environment, as today’s multi-generational workforce puts more strain on corporate cultures to “open up” communication, and social media creates direct channels that reveal what it’s really like to work at various companies.
No doubt about it — today’s brave new connected world of work requires brave new social leadership. Here are 5 must-have social skills that every business leader should develop:
5 Skills To Master As A Social Leader
1) Recognize non-verbal cues. A skilled social leader does not rely on only one form of communication, but is informed by all – verbal, written, non-verbal, viral and so on. Being sensitive to non-verbal cues is difficult because much of today’s communication is digital. However, to effectively interpret non-verbal cues in face-to-face interactions, you must be able to recognize how your personal perception filters input. You don’t have to be a paragon of mental health, but you do need to shut-off the noise in your head long enough to read other people and understand what’s going on with them.
2) Interact regularly. You don’t have to know everyone’s name or how many kids they have. However, you do need to be aware of how employees, peers, partners and customers are thinking, feeling and reacting. This means you must engage others proactively — even through digital forms of communication. How can you expect your organization to be cohesive internally, or build a coherent brand externally, unless everyone shows up to “represent”? You don’t need to tweet or send email round-the-clock, but you must be comfortable connecting in person and on social channels. By reaching out early and often, you’ll learn valuable insights that you’d never anticipate otherwise.
3) Openly discuss your values and purpose. People join companies for many reasons, but what’s more interesting is why they stay. They stay because they feel a sense of shared values, purpose, mission and vision. If you’re a leader and you don’t regularly reinforce the company’s value and purpose, be prepared to do a lot of remedial recruiting when you lose more talent than you’d like.
4) Encourage a community presence. Like it or not, social media is vital in the world of work. Paternalistic managers and top-down leaders sometimes have trouble with this skill, but it’s no longer an option. Companies don’t function in a bubble. They move in a social sphere, where business reputation and results can be shaped by online communities – even when they’re not your customers. Are you blogging on behalf of your company brand? Is anyone in your organization tweeting, blogging or developing a virtual community? Is that even encouraged?
5) Demonstrate authentic interest in your employees and others. You can learn some skills and fake others, but it’s tough to fake sincerity. Some might argue that this is a personality attribute, not a skill. But for me, sincerity makes the difference between a leader and a task manager. If you’re not sincere, you’ll do things that might make business sense, but eventually they’ll backfire. Think of the company snapshot at the start of this post. The CEO thought it made sense to hire new senior technology talent. But because neither he nor the CTO valued sincerity or honest communication, the company is paying a heavy price.
Social engagement is not a management overlay on a toxic culture. It’s not a Band-Aid, a work-around or a cure-all. It’s a way of thinking about business, and doing business. It’s about operating with awareness and engagement — using the power of social networks to demonstrate your brand promise in today’s dynamic marketplace. It’s how the world works. It’s how you need to work. So make your move. Your company’s future depends on it.
(Editor’s Note: Meghan M. Biro is an active contributor to Forbes.com. This article is adapted from Meghan’s Forbes.com blog, with permission.)
(Image Credit: Pixabay)