Updated: Feb 18, 2019
At a recent leadership and digital technology event, I participated in an interesting experiment.
The room was full of seasoned C-suite professionals and up-and-coming business leaders. We covered a diverse range of industries: pharma, biotech, higher education, IT, military/private security, supply chain management.
The facilitator asked us to make a list of keywords that described how we wished to be seen by others in our respective fields. The activity focused on the public identity and values we wished to portray to people meeting us for the first time, as well as those with whom we work every day.
For a few minutes, each us worked alone to refine our personal list of descriptors to no more than ten items. Next, the facilitator asked us to pick a partner we did not know and tell our partner only our name, organization, and title. He asked us to keep our keyword list private for the moment.
We were asked to take out our laptops and spend the next twenty minutes performing a web and social media search on our partners. The facilitator suggested that we go beyond our partner’s corporate “about us” page. Check their Facebook account and photos. How’s their LinkedIn page? Read their tweet history. Have a peak at Instagram. Search their name and undergraduate college together as an image search. And so on…
He then asked us to make a second keyword list that described our impressions of our partner based on what we found online.
Finally, we compared how we each wished to be seen by others, with what our online profile and behavior portrayed to our partners.
Across the board, the activity produced some dramatic and diverse contrasts between the image people wished to portray and the one that their online profile suggested.
At the mild end of the continuum, some described themselves as highly organized and motivated. Yet their LinkedIn page was only half-completed and full of broken links. Others wished to be seen as entrepreneurial, yet there was no evidence of any innovative or risk-taking projects.
There were also some tougher lessons. Some described themselves as compassionate and emotionally intelligent collaborators. Yet their social media accounts were a stream of anger, caps-lock invective, and opinionating that castigated entire swaths of people they might encounter in any workplace.
Others said they worked hard to be seen as serious, professional, and highly capable. Yet, an online search easily produced photos of keg-stands, blunt smoking, and other sundry party shots. By the look on some people’s faces, I’m sure there were other more serious mismatches that were easily found with a casual web search.
Everyone was given time to process with their partners. It was a sobering experience.
Everyone in the room was highly competent and accomplished in their respective fields. In person, nearly everyone was interesting, kind, professional, and even inspirational. But the online personas frequently gave a much more mixed impression; sloppy or inconsistent at best, troubling at worst.
This activity led to a few key insights that were hard for many to accept, but transformational for everyone’s leadership development planning. Here’s a distillation of the lessons learned that day:
Assume that everything you do and say online, and on every platform, is public. This includes all apps and social media. It includes comment threads, Disqus, or YouTube. Some of the more tech savvy folks in the room easily connected “private and personal” identities to professional ones.
Not only is all online behavior public, it is also part of a digital record that is difficult to edit or completely erase. For better or worse, the idea of the digital world as a private space is long gone.
Before you type and hit return, ask yourself, “Would I want my next big potential client, colleagues, or longtime customer to read or see this?”
Accordingly, don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in public, or to someone’s face. Many people treat the digital world the same way they treat being in traffic on the freeway. People are much more likely to act outrageous when they are stuck in traffic with people they assume are strangers, than when they are driving down their own street surrounded by neighbors. Read your average news comment thread, or even some of your good friends’ social media feeds. ‘Nuff said.
These platforms are designed to advantage emotion over reason, invective over argument, and soundbites over real discussion. Soundbite-driven emotional invective will indeed get you more shares, comments, and likes. It will also likely do more harm than good to your real-world relationships and professional image.
Every online platform is angling for a few more seconds of your attention. Simply put, extreme behavior and angst captures attention more easily than a thoughtful exchange. That’s what generates clicks. And clicks are money. It’s not personal. It’s just business. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Understand that your online behavior is currently impacting your in-person relationships. This is an unavoidable certainty. Have you ever met an interesting person at a conference who pitched a great idea or potential collaboration to you? What’s the next thing you did? You likely Googled them and did a little fishing. Others are doing this after they meet you too.
What they find online will impact how, and if, they decide to work with you. If there’s something concerning there, most people will not raise it with you directly. They might just quietly walk away.
Don’t assume that just because no one is bringing up your online image, that it’s not a problem. The cost of poor online behavior can be tremendous and invisible. If you are not being your best-self online, it will inevitably impact your professional life.
Be one person, online and off. Care for your online impression as carefully and strategically as you care for your in-person impression. This sounds reasonable, but don’t underestimate how challenging it can be.
The illusion of anonymity, lack of immediate personal consequences for poor behavior, and availability of immediate emotional payoffs, make many online platforms inherently addictive. Like any addiction, it might take you as long (or longer) to change that behavior as it took to develop those habits in the first place.
As we did at the event, begin by making a clear and accountable plan for change. This will entail some hard choices. Will your activity online be mainly professional or a mix of personal and professional? It used to be possible to do both separately. Today, not-so-much.
If you choose to do both, your old college friends, family, and crazy Uncle Willie will be mixed with the potential investor you just met and your new colleagues. There are multiple right answers, but the questions are hard none-the-less. Whatever you do, it should be on purpose.
Get some advice from people who excel at this. The book, Social Media Management: Persuasion in Networked Culture, by MIT Sloan lecturer Ben Shields is a good place to start.
Several people discussed permanently deleting their Facebook page or other social media accounts and starting fresh with a new focus and rules-of-engagement. Sometimes, the nuclear option is best.
Others realized that activities such as passionately discussing politics online (i.e. ranting) had developed into a major “hobby” that consumed incredible amounts of time and psychic-bandwidth; with questionable payoff in the real world. Like an alcoholic thinking hard about not going to the bar every night, many of these leaders were literally distressed to consider how they would spend their nights if they chose to give up that behavior.
Your mileage may vary, but many of these incredibly busy people were shocked when they fully considered just how much of their time was spent chatting, posting, and trolling online; all for a negligible real-life ROI.
Time is the only truly non-renewable resource. Make sure that you are using that social media platform strategically. Don’t let it use you.
Been meaning to learn Spanish? Planned to start a blog or write a book? Need to be more present with your family? Eliminating compulsive and low-return online activity can yield massive amounts new “free” time for the things that really matter.
Every successful business should have a clear and strategic online image, branding, and social media strategy. The increasing integration of the digital and in-person world means that every successful leader now needs one too.
Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.
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