What it takes to be a true leader in social media

There's an old adage that "leaders act like leaders." I was thinking about that the other day during a conversation with some colleagues about social media.

There's an old adage that "leaders act like leaders." I was thinking about that the other day during a conversation with some colleagues about social media.

Most companies continue to wrestle with how to approach social media, the role of marketing, the role of communications, how much to budget for it, how to measure it, and so forth.

These are all valid issues, but the real winners are just doing it. In a big way.

Is there really any doubt about where this is all headed? Is there any doubt about the enormous potential for real engagement with customers, employees, and other vital stakeholders? Is it really necessary to "test" approaches before diving in full-force?

Which brings me to leaders acting like leaders.

Look at companies like P&G, IBM, and PepsiCo. These organizations are setting the standard for corporate use of social media. P&G clearly understands the declining relevance and impact of classic advertising and sees social as a way to create new, more powerful customer relationships. IBM, starting years ago with their first jam session, has been a consistent leader in social-media use. And PepsiCo, under Indra Nooyi's leadership, made a clear commitment that if it was going to stand for innovation, leadership in social media was a must.

So, what are the characteristics of companies that just "get it"? 

First, as noted, they are committed to being leaders. Followers analyze to death and are risk-averse. Leaders actively embrace the future and accept reasonable risk, understanding the potential for greater risk if little innovation occurs.

Second, the company CEO invariably is an evangelist. He or she understands the role of the bully pulpit, and regularly pushes – and inspires – the troops. I haven't seen a "most admired" company yet in the social media space that doesn't have a strongly supportive and vocal CEO. If yours isn't, start educating.

Third, talent is given priority status. Digital innovation linked to business outcomes is a fairly new field and there aren't that many people good at it. But they're essential to success. Winning companies find people inside the organization who have the capacity to make a difference – and they actively recruit from the outside to steadily raise the bar.  It must be done. Without great people, not much will happen.

Fourth, the CCO mandates real action. Funding is allocated, performance reviews embrace the change, and often "minimums" are set to ensure a minimum percent of activity undertaken by the organization is done in a social media environment. To borrow the phrase of a well-known marketer, CCOs should know to "just do it."

Finally, cross-functional collaboration is key. Implementation of social-media work is managed various ways, centralized, decentralized, etc. There's no right or wrong. But in any scenario, culture can be either an enormous facilitator or barrier; your people must be adept at managing relationships in order to get things done.

As the new year begins in just a matter of weeks, this is a good time to consider the importance of making social media – and its capacity to help inform, engage, innovate and create – the most important new skill set for your organization.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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