Lessons From Fast-Growth Company CEOs Go Beyond Social Media

December 11, 2012

I recently shared my thoughts on why CEOs need to embrace social media. The post was inspired by a study on the social media habits of Fortune 500 CEOs, which showed an alarming absence of these powerful executives on the most popular social networks.

Today CEO.com released the findings of a follow up study that compares the social media habits of Inc. 500 CEOs against the Fortune 500 CEOs.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CEOs of the smaller, fast-growth companies have a stronger social media presence than the leaders of the older, slower-growth companies, but the gap is, frankly, quite shocking.

CEO.com’s study revealed that Inc. 500 CEOs are 13 times more likely to be active on Twitter, 5.3 times more likely to be on Facebook, and three times more likely to be on LinkedIn than CEOs of America’s largest companies. That’s a huge disparity.

We could chalk it up to Fortune 500 CEOs being averse to change – the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. But by not having a social media presence, these giants are handicapping themselves when it comes to agility and growth.

There are other lessons that go beyond social media that big-company CEOs can learn from smaller company CEOs.  One lesson, in particular, is staying connected to the front lines of your business.

The Value of Staying Connected

When your company grows to a size where employees are in different buildings, states or countries it’s natural for a CEO to turn to the next person in the chain of command to find out what’s going on. Executive committees become the messengers for the state of the business.

While this might seem like a great strategy for efficiency, it’s also the quickest path to becoming dangerously out of touch. By the time information gets to you, it has been through so many hands that it looks nothing like what you would have found if you went right to the source.

Why does this happen? In many cases, well-intentioned managers think they are doing you a favor by sanitizing and editing the information so it’s digestible.  Sure, this is often helpful – but if it’s done too much, you’re probably not getting a very accurate read on your business.

I’ve also found that information gets presented in a way that paints the picture others think you want to see.  As a result, you end up missing key details and insights from the real data that help you make better decisions. You also are in danger of missing important signals such as the ones that indicate if you might be losing a customer or missing a new opportunity.

Whether your company is 20,000 people strong or 200, you need to stay in communication with the front lines. The person with the best information is not always going to be the one with the VP title. It might be that quiet developer in the corner who has some great ideas on how to improve your product—yet her opinion or ideas never get out of her department because her managers are focused on getting the next release out the door.  This is one reason why I also find social media so valuable. It’s the quickest distance between two points.  However, as most leaders will agree, not all information is meant for sharing in public forums, so you have to go out and find it.

When I was at Omniture, we had a product guy named Brian Thaut. Brian knew more about our product than just about anyone else in the business. He didn’t have a fancy title, but he had product insights that were priceless in terms of understanding how we could better serve our customers and continue to add value to the experience we were delivering. I knew when I talked to Brian I would get the unvarnished truth about how our product was performing, which gave me the insights to understand what new opportunities we had to grow.

At Domo, I’ve made it a point to seek out people across the company who, like Brian Thaut, have unmatched insights about different areas of the business.  A great example of one of these people is one of Domo’s customer success managers, Kate Barlow.

Each day she has conversations with customers, and every night she sends out a recap of the conversations from that day. I’ve made it a point to make sure I’m included on her FIRST distribution of reports. Her reports are raw notes sent in email. They haven’t been condensed into an executive brief and they are often rife with typos. And that’s perfectly okay with me. The reports are full of real details on what customers are saying, where they have pain points and how they are using our product.  I love having this information unfiltered and in real-time instead of waiting for a version that’s been cleaned up by someone else for my consumption.  I devour the subtle details that might be edited out in a “final” report.

The data gives me food for thought on product development and partnership ideas. It also signals where we should invest in the business. But most importantly, these real-time notes let me know if we are making customers happy and giving them the value we promise. In a sense, these reports are more important to me than any quantitative metrics because they provide the real color and insight that help me make more strategic decisions.

Domo is still a startup, so it’s pretty easy for me to find key people from the front lines like Kate.  When we get to be a billion-dollar business, I’ll still want connections with people just like her.

To a certain extent, all big-company CEOs live in an ivory tower. But today’s leaders need to climb back into the trenches and communicate directly with their troops. You need to find your Brian Thauts and Kate Barlows wherever they live in your organization so you get a real read on your business. If you become comfortable with information that’s been manipulated to look good for your benefit, you are putting yourself and your company at a serious disadvantage.

Which brings me back to social media. Never, in the history of business, has it been easier to connect with your customers and employees to understand what they are truly thinking. Social media is another channel to get intelligence from the front lines. CEOs who embrace it will be the ones who create the most value and lead their companies to even greater heights. In that respect, the fortunes of business will favor corporate leaders who follow in the footsteps of small, fast-growth company CEOs.

Josh

About me

Domo founder and CEO. Omniture CEO and Co-founder - inception to IPO to $1.8B sale to Adobe. I build companies, speak Japanese, dig Honey Smacks. Family rules. BYU. Trying to make a difference. Learn more about me here.

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