David Barker: Chief executives are missing a trick if they don't use digital well

In the modern world, using digital communication is a vital way for CEOs to address some of their responsibilities

David Barker
David Barker

Two statements are commonly found on the job description of any chief executive or senior leader in the voluntary sector: "Be the face and voice of the charity – its principal ambassador"; and "Build relationships with politicians, the media, beneficiaries and other key stakeholders in order to advance the organisation’s aims."

No one can argue with these or suggest that they are inappropriate tasks or responsibilities for any modern leader.

It puzzles me, then, why so many senior leaders have yet to fully embrace one of the most effective tools they have available to deliver some of their leadership responsibilities: social media.

Like it or not, the social age is well and truly here, and it has changed the world in which we live.

For good or bad, we are living in a 24/7 connected world where work is no longer defined by four walls and nine to five.

Technology, citizen journalism and touch-of-a-button broadcasting have broken down any traditional boundaries that might once have existed.

And the modern leader needs to adapt to meet the trials, tribulations and growing opportunities of this changing social age.

As a contributor to a new book by Damian Corbet called The Social CEO – How Social Media Can Make You a Stronger Leader, I had the honour of talking to a good number of charity chief executives. Three things were clear:

  1. In the third sector the social CEO movement is (thankfully) growing.
  2. Many chief executives believe that being active on social media is a key part of their leadership responsibilities.
  3. There are still significant numbers of chief executives or senior leaders not taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the social age.

So what is holding so many leaders back?

One charity leader I spoke to told me they simply didn’t have time; another told me that this was why they employed a digital team.

In my opinion these are naive answers that totally miss the point.

Others said they were concerned about trolling or being directly or unfairly challenged in a very public forum. But surely anyone unable to handle challenging or difficult questions either publicly or privately shouldn’t be a chief executive. 

There is one exception to the rule. Any individual who feels that they could be putting themselves at risk by becoming a social CEO should clearly think twice.

One leader I spoke with worked for a charity supporting people suffering from domestic violence. She was quick to point out that there are some people in society who for very personal reasons do not wish to be visible on social media.

With the above exception, I truly believe the benefits far outweigh the potential pitfalls. As leaders we have a duty to inform, inspire, champion and connect with our beneficiaries and relevant stakeholder groups. Social media is a fundamental route to that.

The digital expert and Third Sector columnist Zoe Amar says in her chapter in the book that "you can’t be a charity chief executive without being a storyteller".

I couldn’t agree more. Yet the majority of the sector’s leaders have yet to embrace one of the best storytelling platforms we have. 

I challenge boards across the UK to add a standard line to the job description of every charity chief executive or senior leader as follows: "To be an active social CEO, championing the cause and the organisation. Utilise social media channels to inform, inspire and connect with beneficiaries and relevant stakeholder groups."

Until this line appears as standard on the role profiles of our sector leaders, we will continue to miss the huge leadership opportunities provided by the social age in which we are now living.

David Barker is chief executive of Youth Talk and Founder of Thrive Consulting @davidbarkerCEO @YouthTalkCEO

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