#TipTuesday – Get Executive Buy-In and Participation

|   Sep 22, 2015

In this third post in my series of advice on how to build a successful enterprise social network (ESN), I discuss the following important tip:

Get executive buy-in and participation.


I’ll illustrate this tip by sharing my company’s story. Our experience in this regard is a tale of two leaders – very different in their connection to our ESN (called Buzz) and the resultant impact on the reputation and spread of ESN use in the enterprise.

For the first two years of our ESN, we had zero participation from our then-CEO. He was aware and philosophically supportive of the endeavor, but he never posted a word. I’m told that he did occasionally go there and browse around, but he never engaged in any discussions, nor did I ever hear him reference our ESN except in the context of one video Q&A session where he answered a question from someone who submitted his question via the ESN. In that case, questions for consideration had to be copied from the ESN by me and then forwarded to a special email address to be considered for inclusion in those to be answered via video – not exactly a dialogue.

During that first two years of ESN use at our company, we still had steady, impressive adoption and growth, but the largest representation was from the lower third of the org chart. The middle of the org chart was a mixed bag of some managers getting it and enthusiastically using it and encouraging their people to do so. Other managers and the top of the org chart produced little more than crickets chirping when it came to ESN participation, with some middle management even actively discouraging their people from participation.

Then in late 2011 we got a new president, Bruce Broussard, who was on a transition plan to also become CEO upon the retirement of the previous CEO. Our new president/CEO demonstrated an entirely different outlook toward and willingness to participate in Buzz which, as you might suspect, has opened the eyes of many middle managers and senior leaders to its purpose and usefulness over the past three years.

Consider these ways by which our CEO and other senior leaders use Buzz:

  • Broussard has a quarterly leader meeting with about 6000 managers invited. All participants are invited to ask questions and make comments via Buzz. There is Q&A time where questions are taken from the live audience as well as from Buzz. We highlight the conversation in the weekly ESN broadcast we send to all 42,000 members so that all employees – not just meeting attendees – can continue the conversations online. Speakers are encouraged to go to the town hall after the event and follow up on any unanswered questions.
  • Broussard also has a monthly leader meeting with the 200+ people at the VP level and above. Two people from my team have a seat at the executive boardroom table during those calls, live posting the key points, asking questions, etc. In the boardroom, one of the two large monitors shows the stream of the meeting conversation from Buzz. The CEO takes questions verbally from participants as well as from Buzz during the meeting.
  • There is a very large, two-day annual meeting leader meeting where, again, we live post those conversations. All posts to Buzz include an event hashtag so anyone can easily follow the stream. We promote the hashtag stream throughout the enterprise for weeks before and after the event.
  • Many leaders, including senior leaders, use the Town Hall feature within our ESN software (Socialcast) to host periodic open town halls where the social element online is either one part of the experience (accompanied by phone call, in-person, or virtual connections) or it may be the only means of communication for the event. One VP, for example, has held open office hours periodically for his 3000+ person organization on certain dates/times with no planned agenda – just making himself available for others to post whatever they want to talk with him about.
  • Broussard travels frequently to other offices, so he takes the opportunity while at those offices to take photos and upload them to Buzz along with encouraging words about the employees and the work they are doing.
  • Our intranet landing page integrates every article posted with a unique discussion thread on Buzz. For articles that are communications from the CEO, he will sometimes end with a question for employees. The responses occur in the ESN discussion thread. He has been known to gather more than 100 comments within a few hours of such posts.
  • Broussard is very active personally in biking, running, swimming, etc. He has posted photos related to his triathlons and scenery he encounters while working out. His profile pic is of him riding his bike on a “Bike to Work” day. With health and well-being as the most frequent topic on our ESN, such posts resonate well with a health-conscious employee base.
  • Our CEO was called out twice in Charlene Li’s recent book “The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation” as an example of a CEO who seeks to engage with large numbers of his employees via the enterprise social network.
  • Broussard takes opportunities to share via Buzz corporate accomplishment, awards, etc., and to praise those behind the efforts.
  • He takes part in the annual 100 Day Dash stepping challenge for employees and either joins or forms a team and contributes to their communications on Buzz throughout the Dash. A couple of years ago he simply posted on Buzz with an invitation for the first nine people who responded to join his personal team for the dash that year, and then he met with and kept in contact with the team throughout those 100 days. (And he averaged over 17,000 steps a day for that Dash; the man’s a beast when it comes to walking the talk of a healthy lifestyle – leading by example!)
  • When our weekly broadcast to all ESN users recently announced it was the CEO’s birthday, a flood of birthday messages and notes of appreciation starting pouring in, tagging Broussard, thanking him for his leadership, and showing how flat and personal an organization can be when an ESN is used well at all levels of the company .

Needless to say, we are fortunate to have the support and participation of our CEO on Buzz in ways that validate its use and encourage others to use it as well. Such efforts contribute to why he was called out twice in Charlene Li’s recent book “The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation” as an example of a CEO who seeks to engage with large numbers of his employees via the enterprise social network.

One of my favorite moments demonstrating his active support for our ESN came a couple of years ago when he was asked at a large meeting of nearly 100 people what the cost of investing in internal social would be and what the return would be. Broussard responded, “I’m not sure what the cost of all of this might be, but I do know that having 50,000 people on the same page moving in the same direction is pretty important to me.” Later that same week in a different setting, someone asked a similar question about a new service being provided to customers at no additional cost to the customers. His reply that time was “Sometimes you do things just because they’re the right thing to do.”

BOOM! I haven’t heard that question asked in reference to our ESN since then.

Not surprisingly, the sound of crickets chirping from previous skeptics in middle and upper management has largely subsided due to finally seeing someone above them in the org chart use the ESN well. It’s pretty hard to continue the unenlightened claim that there is no good business use of such a tool when your CEO consistently demonstrates otherwise and encourages you to do the same!

Not all top leaders are inclined to use social media, be it internal or external. You may need to offer to do some reverse mentoring, sitting down one-on-one with them to help overcome fear of the technology. You may need to coach them through a specific, short-term use of it for a particular event or initiative to help them dip their toes in the water. Nobody should expect a permanent, major behavioral and lifestyle change from their top leaders overnight, but it is reasonable to expect gradual and regular involvement at some agreed-upon level of engagement that helps them accomplish goals important to them.

The value of such executive participation cannot be overstated. It shouts to the enterprise that this technology has business value, that it’s worthwhile, and that using it is an expected form of communication for all levels of the org. It puts others who may be apprehensive about it at ease, giving them the OK to dive in themselves.

We still have some holdouts among leaders in the org. I don’t expect 100% buy-in and participation from everyone – at least not yet. But we’re light years ahead of where we were just a few years ago. We’ll continue making progress, building on the strength of a top executive who gets it, who is completely supportive of our ESN efforts, and who demonstrates that support by his own personal participation.

Can you have a successful ESN without top leaders involved? Perhaps. Ours certainly grew rapidly in those first two years without it, but we would have grown more and faster in that time with the previous CEO’s active participation.

Don’t delay the implementation of an ESN if you don’t yet have executive buy-in and assurance of personal participation. Other enthusiastic users can still make its presence worthwhile for the company. However, work as hard as you can to make sure this third important piece of advice on building a successful ESN happens in your org…

Get executive buy-in and participation.

[This post has been modified from the original version first published at jeffrossblog.com.]

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What is Socialcast?

Socialcast by VMware (NYSE: VMW) is a social network for business uniting people, information, and applications with its real-time enterprise activity stream engine. Behind the firewall or in the cloud, Socialcast enables instant collaboration in a secure environment. Socialcast is headquartered in San Francisco, California. www.socialcast.com