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Connected Leadership: Communicating From the Outside-In

How can CEOs engage a WFH workforce? Fewer all-company emails and more social posts, says Craig Mullaney.

The pandemic has forced even tech-resistant leaders to hold video meetings and attend webinars. They’ve seen that technology can’t replicate the benefits of meeting face-to-face, but it can foster connections that otherwise wouldn’t have happened—and create new opportunities in the process.

It’s a lesson CEOs should bear in mind as they engage their WFH workforces. Many are trying to stay connected today by simply recreating events on video: happy hours, office visits, town halls, etc. Some have just resorted to larger doses of familiar digital tools: emails, newsletters, intranet posts. These tactics are great at conveying information, but not engaging people. How many of us respond to a CEO’s all-company email? When does a leader’s intranet post generate more than perfunctory comments?

Counterintuitively, the route to better internal engagement runs through external platforms. Whether LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, these platforms were designed to connect people. Liking a CEO’s post or leaving a comment somehow doesn’t feel daunting, so we actually do it. This, in turn, creates opportunities for the leader to respond to those comments or likes—dozens of connections that a read-but-not-responded-to email wouldn’t have generated.

It helps that social platforms encourage humanity, an ingredient all too often lacking in internal efforts. Picture a typical all-staff email from a CEO: It’s probably formal, long, and carries the fingerprints of multiple authors. Town halls and newsletters often feel similarly scripted and inauthentic. Social media, simply by the kind of content it lends itself to, has a way of injecting warmth and humanity. That’s a critical ingredient of engagement—and leadership. We want to know who leaders are before we trust what they say, let alone connect with their agenda.

That humanity flows, at least in part, because leaders can use more than italics and underline to express themselves on social platforms. Every major platform offers the ability to engage via live or recorded video and, unexpectedly, the less polished the production, the more authentic and engaging they appear. A LinkedIn article with embedded images and pull-out quotes is more striking than a simple plain-text email. Whatever the channel, leaders can tell richer stories in ways that reveal their voice and style.

How many of us respond to a CEO’s all-company email? When does a leader’s intranet post generate more than perfunctory comments? Counterintuitively, the route to better internal engagement runs through external platforms.

Another practical benefit: reach. In many industries, employees don’t have an intranet or email address. But they all have a phone and most use social media. Go where your audience is; don’t expect them to find you.

And crucially, publishing a message for internal audiences on an external platform lends greater credibility to the message. It’s one thing to speak behind closed doors—another to say it publicly. Doing so begets a virtuous cycle—employees are more likely to engage when CEOs demonstrate they’re listening—and sets a powerful example for colleagues to follow.

It’s an approach we’ve seen leaders use with great effect during these difficult months. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, for example, used TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn to connect with employees throughout the pandemic and amid the protests against racial injustice. Hans communicated most weekdays, live, via the public employee Twitter handle “VZUpToSpeed”—at times to an audience of more than 50,000.

For the CEO unsure where to begin: Pick a channel and post to celebrate your employees. Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon and Walmart’s Doug McMillon, for example, both routinely highlight the outstanding contributions of employees on Instagram. All it takes is a photo plus a short, authentic note of gratitude.

Imagine what that kind of public recognition means to the employee or their team— would you rather have your boss tell you in private you’ve done a great job, or deliver that message in front of thousands of colleagues and connections? And consider what that communicates about your company’s culture and personal leadership style—not just to current employees, but also prospective ones.

This approach, at its core, isn’t just about engaging employees from the outside-in; it’s also about bringing crucial outside perspectives in front of the CEO, providing them an unfiltered look of how the world actually sees them and their company. This crisis is an opportunity for executives to move beyond Zoom and email and use social technologies to reinvent and reinvigorate how they lead their organizations.