Why Executives Don’t “Get” Social Media

boss-newYour boss, executive client or any other leader with whom you’re dealing (or perhaps even you, yourself) may not intuitively understand social media. This is not because of a lack of understanding or the technical acumen to use some internet connected device and hosted software, but more likely because they don’t feel the need to put forth the effort or energy to embrace it (or why anyone else would goof with social media, for that matter).

As social media continues to accelerate as a method of connecting people to one another as well as to news, information and other snippets of value, I keep thinking about people who aren’t all that social, are not inherently “connectors,” or are folks who are simply not all that interested in connecting with other people in some virtual way.

Years ago I always thought not being social was, well, being antisocial. Being one of the weirdos who smell bad and can’t be trusted around small animals or children. The guys you see leaving Blockbuster on a Friday night with 10 videos…for the weekend. The hermits whom I always seem to stumble upon when hiking in the Superior National Forest and who abhor bumping in to anyone.

Then I became enlightened.


When I was running strategic alliances at Lawson Software, the company sent all the VPs through various executive workshops run by a behaviorial consulting organization in Los Angeles. One I attended required an assessment that resulted in my receiving a personalized “motive profile” when I arrived in La Jolla, CA for the workshop and was a document that surprised me greatly.

This assessed profile was based on the work of the late Harvard professor David McClelland, in which he proposed that an individual’s specific needs are acquired over time and are shaped by one’s early life experiences. Most of these needs can be classified as either achievement, affiliation, or power (or what McClelland apparently wished he’d called that last one: influence due to “power’s” often miscontrued meaning) and are hard-wired into each of us by the time we’re 4 or 5 years old.

I was surprised to discover that I was a “power V” with 91% achievement, 28% affiliation and 74% power which is an entrepreneur’s profile (large organization CEO’s typically score the same but are in the upper 90th percentile in achievement and power while being even lower in affiliation needs).

When these results were handed to me by the workshop leader, I was stunned since anyone who knows me would laugh at the notion I’m low on affiliation and actually not a social animal. I complained to our workshop leader immediately and he asked if we could post my results so the group could talk about them.

What troubles you Steve,” asked Dan, the workshop leader, as he wrote my scores on the board. “28% in affiliation!?! But I *like* people, can talk to a rock and have always been perceived as an extroverted good host at parties and a fun coach and mentor,” I protested. Dan calmly explained to me (and the group) that what our scoring meant was the measure of what each of us needed to be whole and satisfied each-n-every day. He explained that I had an innate drive to achieve, to influence others, but mostly didn’t need to be around or connect with people at all in order to meet my daily core needs.

I calmed down. This was a pretty accurate profile since affiliation with others wasn’t (and isn’t) a motivator for me. Though I find my best ideas and energy come from being around others and brainstorming, I must admit that I do love solitude and need daily time by myself to feel whole. Learning this about myself was (and still is) incredibly instructive, but has been more so as I’ve been involved in the social media space. The lessons I learned from this personal “Aha!” has informed my interactions with executives and leaders while providing me with new insight into how to consult with companies on social media and internet platform initiatives.

So what’s the lesson in all of this for you?

Almost all the other executives at that La Jolla workshop were the same relative motive profile as me. Other leaders with whom I’ve interacted with in the years since are also the same ‘power V’ as well. These are probably sweeping generalizations, but my subsequent experience has proven them pretty accurate and worth noting:

1) Factor in a typical executive’s low need for affiliation when you’re pitching your boss, executives or client leadership on internet or web innovations that you think are a no-brainer to move forward on. Chances are they’ll be less-than-interested in what you’re proposing if it’s all about social media connections vs. promoting efficiencies (i.e., achieving better results) or for ways in which people can be persuaded en masse.

2) If you’re a ‘power V’ yourself and are the decision-maker, understand your own motives, needs and perspectives as you listen to the pitches, and factor that in when you listen to the vision being proposed.

3) What works to get me engaged with social media — and might be one you’ll find useful too — is when people who are connectors and love doing so (like my friend Lonny Gulden, the man with the biggest rolodex in Minnesota and over 4,700 connections in LinkedIn) — see the connection between people and the value it could create by putting us together and they do so. This is always highly valuable (and I so appreciate it) when he and others do it, and I’d recommend that if you’re low on affiliation, ask the connectors in your life to make those connections.

4) Finally, if you’re contemplating social media for you or your organization to use or harness in some way for marketing or community building purposes, consider that you — like every other organization trying to leverage existing social media connections — that attempting to reach and leverage influencers is going to be a challenge. Chances are the leaders and influencers you want to reach (even if they are online and participating in social media) could care less about playing in your sandbox unless you are overt, are a good host and provide them with ways to achieve or influence rather than just connect.

One senior sales & marketing leader from a large local company I talked with recently — who has an atypical awareness of the social media technology space but admits he could care less about building relationships, community or honing his people skills — said it best when I asked why he didn’t invest time using Twitter sending out tweets, blogging or otherwise creating a presence in the social media space. “Because I’m getting sh*t done and I can’t invest my attention or energy there.


  1. says

    I just Yammered to my company about this post … however there are not any executives on our internal Yammer network … a shame, but not unexpected.

  2. says

    “I’d recommend that if you’re low on affiliation, ask the connectors in your life to make those connections.”

    good point, Steve – sometime we’ll have to look into what’s in it for the connectors…

    good question for Lonny – my guess is that’s why guys like him end up becoming recruiters


  3. says

    I thank Steve for his reference, but I would like to correct him on one item. I currently have over 8000 first level connections on LinkedIn which provides me access to almost 19 million members through the third level. I also am an open networker and gladly accept all invitations at http://www.linkedin.com/in/lonnygulden.

    In addition, on January 13th, 14th and 15th I will be teaching a LinkedIn workshop at the Dakota County Technical College in Apple Valley. Further information and registration can be found at http://tinyurl.com/83k485.

  4. says

    Very interesting and relevant. We are trying to embrace social media with open arms, and it is amazing how many stakeholders in the ecosystem right down the line don’t get at all what we are trying to do. Nice to know we are not alone, the world will see it our way eventually :)

    I loved your point about not presenting it in terms of connecting if connecting is not what’s valuable to them, but instead, tie it back to returns in an area that they do care about. Great advice.


  5. says

    Great post – thanks! It’s all about strategy and resources. If you don’t have time to do your accounting because you are “getting things done,” does that mean you shouldn’t do your accounting? No, you hire someone to do smart things for you – outsource.

    Also, “content” has been and always will be “king.” Become a valued resource for your target audience and you will influence decision makers, whether they are online or not. Their friends, business colleagues, etc. will know your brand and your name.

    Another thing to consider, if the people you target are NOT online social networking, why would you want to target them? Go after their competitors – they are more likely to succeed (i.e., they’ll be able to work with you in the long-run; you succeed when your clients succeed).

  6. says

    Very interesting write-up! As social media becomes more and more important to the world of Education (at least to those on the cutting edge), more research-based approaches to the topic are becoming more useful to me. I use services like Twitter, Plurk, and blogs for exactly what you describe “execs” don’t have time to do. So far, I’ve found that many principals and administrators in education (some in America, but most in Canada) are learning the power of social media. So, at least some “execs” are finding time to get stuff done while using social media…

  7. says

    Ha–well done Lonny! Way to add a punctuation mark to this post. A good read, and some interesting analysis on why people react differently to social media. Makes me want to dig a little deeper into motive profiles and see if there’s anyone else I recognize. Have to confess I’ve too often dropped “Because I’m getting sh*t done” as a rationale not to engage.

  8. says

    Great insight. Understanding the motivations or better yet the needs of others often changes how I present ideas. When we talk to C class executives about Social media, I avoid words like “friends” “contact” and even “sharing”, etc. Instead, I present a story – what if, in just a couple of hours, and for free, I could drive a few hundred people to a brand new product you are offering on your web site? Now the exec is interested.

    Once I have some attention, I begin to explain that this is the power of social media.

  9. says

    Thanks for getting people thinking!

    Understanding your audience is always key to delivering a more effective pitch, presentation, message… even when talking with people lower in the organizations’s chart. They still have objectives, constraints and hot buttons — hopefully we are listening more then talking, so we can be flexible and adapt to what we are hearing. This doesn’t preclude doing our homework before going in – understand their business (clarify it with them) and then put yourself in their shoes to understand where/how social media adds value —

    i.e. it’s a much different application for a manufacturer vs. a government or health care provider…

  10. says

    Great post! A very similar post was done on http://www.dogwalkblog.com.
    I really enjoyed hearing from another “low-affiliation” scorer on how to get through to companies why social media is important. I run into clients who want be in the social media niche but fail to understand it’s a big breakroom of conversations. You have to converse back to get people to hear your message! And you have to do it over and over again. Content is king but also having opinions on what other’s are saying is just as important.
    Clear direction and answering “Why” someone wants to engage in social media is extremely important. Just b/c everyone else is, doesn’t make it the best strategy for a business.

  11. says

    It’s important to keep these things in mind when you’re pitching a social media strategy to the individuals that ultimately make the decisions. Put the strategy in terms that appeal to them – don’t use phrases like “build community” or “connect with our audience”. Use terms like “create brand loyalty” and “increase referrals”. Those terms trigger dollar signs in the minds of executives and help them understand that social media strategies will help the company reach bottom line revenue goals faster and more efficiently, with less money having to be invested in traditional advertising.

  12. says

    I’ve pretty much given up on trying to “sell” social media to anyone. Particularly anyone who scoffs at or is derisive of it. Screw them. They’re the ones who are missing out, not me. And if you’re the kind of person who feels the need to make fun and crap on something you don’t understand, then frankly I don’t want to deal with you anyway. Do us all a favor and stay out of the playground so the rest of us can have fun.

    This leads me to my second point. It’s ironic that people who are supposed to get social media, like forward-thinking marketing people are so completely deaf to their own message when it comes to “selling” their boss on it. You can’t push your message to the boss any more than you can push your company’s message to its customers.

    What’s social media marketing all about? It’s about listening for people who already buying or contemplating it. It’s NOT about trying to convince, manipulate or force people who are not ready to buy into being buyers.

    Your boss is your buyer. If s/he’s not ready to buy or contemplating it already, I’d suggest looking around for one who is.

  13. says

    Very interesting, but basically wrong about why executives don’t “get” social media. Executives don’t get social media because it’s about connecting individuals rather than organizations. Letting social media loose means giving up control. It means letting employees talk and decide rather than lawyers and PR hired guns. The Cluetrain explained this 10 years ago.

  14. says

    Great tweet and comments from everyone, thus far – I particularly can resonate with Eri Hall, and yet also with Elliotte Harold, as I have worked in several different industries: Healthcare, I.T.(software development), finance, hospitality, non profit, and of course, government – and all have their various idiosyncrasies as well.

    While all of these industries are different in their own ways, for obvious reasons, some industries can be typically slower to accept new technologies and methodologies, preferring instead to “let someone else take the risks,” and then maybe they’ll take a look at it….Elliotte’s comment is a truism for these “slower to accept change” industries overall, and that is something that I fear will continue, unless social and global change mandates it….great topic!

  15. cwurld says

    Whose not getting what? The title implies that there is the special group of people who KNOW the right answer and there is this other group that has something wrong with them so they either are slow to understand or never could understand.

    Consultants, gurus and pundits have long made a good living off of touting new technologies that are supposed to change everything. There are many famous examples of once powerful organizations that truly failed because they were too slow to embrace new technologies.

    But there are also many less famous examples of companies that wasted huge amounts of resources investing in technology that turned out to be a complete waste. In recent history, corporate blogs come to mind. For a while there it seemed like every company felt that they should have a daily role in your life. This lead to blogs for such things as Kitty Litter.

    The reality is we live in a broad and diverse world. Some tools that are essential for some people or organizations are irrelevant to others.

  16. says

    Steve — you mention how some execs respond to spending time on soc net with “I’m busy actually working”. Sometimes at work when I’m Tweeting, Friending, Poking, Pinging or whateverthehelling, I often feel like I’m taking an unnecessary detour from the time clock of the work day. Then I bounce back when I think about all the successes I’ve made through online connections, discussions and publishing.

    There is still a massive stigma on the ‘net as “playtime,” and therefore not respected. I say yes, it IS playtime and that’s just the point. Play is interactive. But, old school one-way messaging is still more respected by the old boys network (and beyond), even though the return is never as high long-term.

    How’s this: if it weren’t for Twitter I wouldn’t have stumbled onto this post. Case closed.


  1. […] about these trends, there’s only so much we all cando to sway the masses. There’s a great post on “Why Executives Don’t Get Social Media” that I think captures what most non-adopters feel. The reasons are simple: they don’t see the […]

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