Social Business Reality Check: the elusive executive support

Many change management and social business consultants will tell you this: to ensure success in your social business implementation, you must get broad executive support. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? You look across the landscape of social business implementations, and typically the ones that have achieved some degree of success have many key executives embracing the idea of the 3 Cs of social: collaboration, communications and connections. Thus, the equation is simple: executive support = social business success. But then, when it’s your turn to implement the dream of social business in your company, you go around to secure that magic ingredient of success – the elusive executive support – and reality knocks at your door: most executives you’ll talk to will give a lukewarm support to your cause. They are not against it, they acknowledge the potential behind the idea, but very few will conspicuously support you in that journey. Why is that happening? How come other trailblazers managed to get all that support from senior leaders, and you are struggling to get even a handful of executives to be the visible leaders of this noble endeavor? Read on to find one possible answer to that puzzle.

Go ahead and google it: almost every list covering key success factors for a social business strategy will have something along the lines of securing executive support. Here are some examples:

If the executive team is not ready to support the disruptions that come with running a social business, find another area to invest in. (Rob Koplowitz’ Blog, “Delivering The Social Business Imperative”,

Gaining executive buy-in and using their participation in the enterprise social network to set an example for the rest of the company is essential to the success of the project (Gartner Research Director Larry Cannell, quoted at “3 Common Enterprise Social Network Mistakes“,

In the early days you may be able to fly under the radar, but at some point, if you want to truly have an impact on the business, you’ll need the backing and support of key executives. (Charlene Li, “New Book: The Seven Success Factors of Social Business Strategy”)

It’s a fairly safe bet to say that most consultants writing about social business have never implemented it successfully themselves. Not that they need to: as it happens in any human activity, there is always a need for practitioners and theorists. They feed off from each other, and that is a good thing. Great theorists help practitioners to make sense of what they do every day, define frameworks, recognize patterns and build the cathedral of knowledge that keeps growing with each individual contribution. There are great coaches who never played a professional game as athletes, great political commentators who never held any public position, and so on. But as theories get developed, they also go through a process of hits and misses. That’s especially true in areas still undergoing frequent change. Because the samples are so small and often not representative, we may occasionally get the right data, but fail to consider the complexity behind it.

In the case of successful social business implementations, having many executives embracing the platform may be one of the key factors that led to that achievement. A visionary CEO may be able to drive her / his whole organization through the social business journey and make it very successful. However, there may also be cases where the executive support is not the cause for the success, but rather an outcome of it. This is somewhat similar to seeing a rainforest like the Amazon, and thinking that the reason for its majestic dominance is the fact that it has very tall trees, some reaching 70 to 80 meters in height, setting the way for the small trees to succeed. According to the theory of ecosystem development, the opposite is true: in early developmental stages, small organisms are the first ones to conquer a new area, and large ones only set their presence as ecosystems mature.

Likewise, in the early stages of your social business implementations, you may have only a few executives visibly supporting your cause. And that’s OK, really. Considering that many consulting firms mention that 70 to 80% of social business implementations fail to realize value, it’s natural that senior leaders will be skeptic about it. They are not necessarily doubting that social business can be successful, but they may be acutely aware that it typically takes a few attempts until a successful initiative emerges. They won’t give you support just because of your pretty eyes. You’ll have to earn it.

Invest your time and effort first in those few areas where you know are key for the few executives supporting you. Build on top of early wins, and expand from there. If you do it right, you’ll grab the attention of other executives along the way, and their support will follow. Just don’t expect that you will have them all on board from day one. This time around, giants may need to stand on the shoulders of early adopters to see what the social business future looks like.

Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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