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The top 6 excuses executives make to avoid social media (and how to address them)

Charlene Li

Leaders know they need to engage in digital and social, but they come up with many excuses, none of which will likely be a surprise to you. I thought it would be helpful to lay out the top excuses I hear from executives—and how you can rebut them to persuade these reluctant leaders to become Engaged Leaders, the subject of my latest book.

#1: “I don’t have time.”

There’s a perception that to be successful at social, you have to tweet 20 times a day, check news streams all the time, blog at least three times a week, respond to every @reply and comment. No executive can make that kind of commitment. 

Listening to your customers and employees is one of the most important things you can do. What does it say to “not have the time” to listen to them? Share and engage with them? By inaction, you are saying they don’t matter. It is as if the phone is ringing, the customer is knocking on your door, and you refuse to even show up. The key: be selective about who you listen to and don’t feel obligated to listen to everyone.

Example: David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra, the largest communications company in Australia, flips through his news feeds several times a day to get a feel for what is being discussed in his company and in the public. He does this while standing in line to get coffee or lunch. Or during a break between meetings. He reflected, “People overestimate how much time it takes, but it’s really just a few minutes here and there.”

#2: “It’s not about me.”

You’re right, it’s not about you. It’s about your leadership—what you believe is important for the organization to be focused on, and how we are doing against our goals. We need to hear from you as a leader, be inspired by you. It’s every leader’s responsibility to communicate what they want the organization to do. Social media provides a fast path for leaders to communicate direction and celebrate employees.

Example: Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest independently owned public relations firm, has blogged regularly for over ten years because he knows its important for his internal and external stakeholders to hear his perspective. He shared that blogging, “connects me with the people of Edelman and our clients in a personal way. It allows me to opine on topics in the PR industry, which very few of my fellow CEOs do...why not share my experiences?”

#3 “It doesn’t replace face-to-face.”
There is no substitute for shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye, and asking, “Are we good?” But you can’t do that regularly with every single employee or customer. Being an engaged leader is figuring how you can build trust in relationships via digital and social channels. Trust is established when you listen, share, and engage with intent and purpose, and inspire your followers to go where you lead.

Example: Humana CEO and president Bruce Broussard started engaging with employees on the company’s internal platform, using it as a focus group mechanism to test ideas. He also hosts larger quarterly meetings where 6,000 Humana leaders ask quesitons and network. Broussard makes content from these sessions public within a few days of themeeting, allowing 55,000 Humana employees to participate in the conversation. This is engaged leadership, at scale.

#4: “It’s marketing’s job.”

Some leaders sidestep having to engage by pointing out that it’s marketing’s job to execute on communicating the purpose, mission, and brand value of the organization. And if they happen to be in marketing, they point at the social team—and so it goes down the line. 

This is a cop out—it’s a leader’s job to communicate and inspire purpose and mission among their followers. The best leaders learn to use the latest technologies (phone, fax, email, video conferencing, etc.) to extend their leadership into these channels. Make sure it is your personal leadership voice that is getting out—then partner with marketing to figure out the nuts and bolts of using the right channels to get that message out.

Example: Bill Marriott, the chairman of Marriott International, is in his 80’s and blogs all the time despite not being able to type. He’s not letting the fact that he doesn’t type hold him back – sometimes he writes his posts out in long form, and other times, he dictates a blog. The key is that he’s the brains behind the posts, not marketing. He tells the stories–like when his parents drove across the country in a Model T to start their first hotel–in a way that marketing never could. 

#5: “Who cares about what I had for lunch?!?”

No one probably, unless you are in the food business. What customers, employees, and other stakeholders really want to know is what you talked about during lunch. What are your priorities? What are you focused on, working on? What’s your take on what we are doing well, where we need to improve? Rather than have them guess what’s important to you, tell them.

Example: That’s what Rosemary Turner, the president of UPS North California District does on her Twitter account -- she uses it to stay in touch with 17,000 employees who are often on the road. At first Turner’s reaction to using social media was, “I’m not Kim Kardashian -- I’m not going to post what I had for lunch!” But she realized that using Twitter was a game changer. She reflected, “I feel I can touch people and it extends the impact of my leadership when I listen, and then share back what I’m hearing. I now have all of these connections, where I can contact someone and find out what I want.”  A top leadership priority for Rosemary and for UPS is to empower employees to speak up with their ideas and concerns 

#6: “I don’t want to get my company in trouble.”

This might be the toughest nut to crack. What the leader is really saying is “I’m afraid” and they jump to the worst case scenario, where a well-intended action goes completely awry and ends up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Reassure them that to get started, they are just going to listen. And we’ll then use that as a starting point to share, and eventually, find the right opportunities to engage. The last thing anyone wants is for them to get in trouble — and an intentional, strategic plan will help them avoid those kinds of missteps.doesn’t know where to begin or how to do it.

Example: Let’s go back to David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra. Thodey worked closely with his communications team to define where, when, how, and with whome he would engage. They set guidelines down in writing, and planned for scenarios that he might encounter. Thodey also insisted that every post be made live by him only—while others may help write a post, he insisted that only he could push the “Publish” button. The key was that Thodey systematically and intentionally developed a strategic plan for his engaged leadership, and in the course, developed an amazing affinity and aptitude for digital engagement.

Leading with Courage

My experience working with leaders is that time after time, the wisdom and experience a great leader brings to the table are the keys to making his or her digital transformation stick. I’d much rather teach a leader how to use the tools, than teach someone with the tools how to lead—one takes hours, the other takes decades.

Recognize that it takes a lot of courage to jump into a new area, especially when you’re a leader who’s expected to have all of the answers. Becoming an engaged leader requires only an openness to change, a willingness to practice, and the dedication to prepare by anchoring digital strategy to goals and objectives.