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Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group Chairman uses Twitter to his advantge. Here he’s photographed while talking on his mobile phone at the company’s offices in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group Chairman uses Twitter to his advantge. Here he’s photographed while talking on his mobile phone at the company’s offices in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

LEADERSHIP LAB

Calling all CEOs: It’s time to join Twitter Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Being a CEO on Twitter today is comparable to playing a game without an opponent. Fewer than 30 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are active Twitter users. This figure is astounding. I say this because Twitter, for all of its unique attributes, is the most powerful global communications tool in existence for business, government, and opinion leaders worldwide. Many of Canada’s business leaders have shunned Twitter. This needs to change.

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Twitter has become a partner to breaking news and television. It is the network of choice for consumer feedback. Twitter is everywhere, except it seems, in the consciousness of the CEO. Clearly a gap exists, indicating a lack of awareness of the extent to which communications have changed, and that the opportunities on Twitter need greater clarification.

Twitter has changed.

Much of the hesitation to join Twitter may be rooted in a lack of understanding that Twitter has moved far beyond the network reputed for the banal commentary of its infancy. Charlie Sheen’s #winning campaign of years past is a poor advertisement for the strategic leverage available via this network. Twitter has grown up since it was founded in 2006, becoming a dominant force in the exchange of social, political, and business information.

Communications have changed.

Mobile technology and the widespread use of social media applications have changed the way in which we consume, and convey, information. CEOs are not yet equating the need for a change in leadership communications with changes in technology. Twitter represents a large part of the communications shift that we are experiencing as a society. It has been a democratizing and mobilizing force as a provider of global and open access to instant information.

Consumer activism has changed.

Consumers are currently in control of many of the conversations taking place on Twitter. They are demanding greater corporate transparency and higher levels of customer service.

The business community needs to catch up, respond openly to consumer needs, and work diligently in order to transform consumers into brand advocates. The conversation needs to be customer-centric, forward-thinking, and supplemented by a leadership vision.

Corporate narratives have changed.

Storytelling, content marketing, and consumer engagement are quickly becoming the communications norm. This represents a dramatic shift away from a tradition of public relations and advertising campaigns for the exclusive purpose of promoting products and services. Corporate messages have become more conversational, interactive, and values-driven.

Of all the voices that ought to convey a high-level corporate narrative, one would expect this voice to belong to the CEO. Does it not make sense, given the extent of employee advocacy on Twitter, that the most important employee advocate of all be the CEO?

This is not to say that executives should manage their company’s Twitter account or social media strategy. Rather, they should be an integral part of it.

Complementing a company’s social presence with an authoritative leadership voice on Twitter is very much the objective, one that can, and should, distinguish itself by a values-driven narrative from the CEO.

Specifically, that narrative should capture the essence of the leadership attributes that others seek to follow. Participation on Twitter is an opportunity for leaders to define and share the essence of their human capital, business acumen, and integrity, and link those attributes to the success of their business, all of which builds and strengthens corporate and professional brands.

A number of the world’s most reputable CEOs have embraced Twitter, most notably Richard Branson (@richardbranson) of Virgin Group, Canada’s Peter Aceto (@PeterAceto) of Tangerine Bank (formerly ING Direct), and the iconic General Electric CEO Jack Welch (@jack_welch), now chair of the Jack Welch Management Institute. They love their companies and they are telling the world about them each and every day. They have no more hours in their day than any other CEO, but they have made the decision to join Twitter and to lead with it.

When Jim Flaherty passed away suddenly, much attention was directed towards the poignancy of his final tweet, thanking Canada for the honour of serving the country. This brief but highly impactful message gave us a small yet important window into the content of his character. When Commander Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) tweeted from space, he not only captured our imaginations, he demonstrated what is possible when we embrace what’s new and different.

Canadian business leaders are indeed creative, innovative, and above all, successful. The time has come for more of them not just to join in the conversation on Twitter, but to lead it.

I say ‘bravo’ to those CEOs already on Twitter. Continue to praise your employees and share the insights that attract top talent to your organization. Continue to amplify your messages of success. Continue to influence the lives of others, and inspire a whole new generation seeking to walk in your shoes.

Hilary Carter (@TweetFromHilary) is a public speaker and the founder of InTune Communications (@AreYouInTune), a strategic communications firm that helps companies and individuals amplify their messages and build their brands on Twitter and other social media networks.

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Careers

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