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Canadian executives need to get aboard the digital train

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers.

It's 2017, and top-notch communication from the C-suite must incorporate social platforms.

This is a well-understood dynamic in the United States, and I write today as a call to Canada's business leaders to focus on catching up.

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I speak for Twitter in my daily life, but accelerating adoption of the full canvas of digital platforms for corporate communication is broadly required in #TheNorth.

I have witnessed first-hand a sharp turn in the need, nature and form of executive communications during my 20-plus years in the Canadian tech and media industries. In the early stages of my career, the executive memo was still the vehicle-of-choice for most transmissions from the C-Suite. In many ways, it mirrored how brands or organizations would communicate to customers and the media: formalized and expected, one-way and predictable.

Unpredictability is today's calling card. The media cycle has

accelerated to real-time and rapidly changing economic and political environments are bringing heightened focus on prompt, clear, direct communications. Consumers have a faster, louder voice than they've ever had. The bar for transparency and authenticity has been raised.

Fast communication is now an essential for today's market and more Canadian executives must move to embrace the tools that enable it.

Conversations also now happen in a far broader and far more inclusive way. The rise of social networks has given everyone the opportunity to tap into conversations about business – from industry dynamics to customer complaints through to politics and current events. All of these topics affect business. Critically, they do so whether senior executives choose to take part in them or not. A small but growing number of business leaders are seeing the importance of at least joining, but increasingly leading and framing these conversations. In doing so, they are connecting with a much larger audience of customers, employees, colleagues and stakeholders. As a result, they are building and harnessing a competitive advantage.

In the 1990s and 2000s, executives such as Mark Cuban (MicroSolutions, Broadcast.com) and Steve Ballmer (Microsoft) became known for their candour and willingness to speak openly and simply about their organizations and their own personal brands as executives. To be sure, this dynamic has now extended to the White House where U.S. President Donald Trump is using direct, unpolished, unfiltered communications around a wide array of topics, in a way that we haven't seen before from any sitting world leader. There are as many social communication styles as there are leaders out there and I believe any senior executive must carefully consider their approach to building and maintaining their authentic voice and place within the largest discussions happening in the world right now. One thing we know for sure – not getting in the conversation is a massive missed opportunity. Your markets, customers, partners, employees and stakeholders want to hear from you.

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At home, we're behind the curve. There are some shining examples of Canadian top executives connecting in a positive and effective way with vast, diverse audiences. We see, for example, Peter Aceto (Tangerine) and Janet Kennedy (Microsoft Canada) shine regularly on Twitter and other platforms. But there's a lot of room for growth in the Canadian executive ranks within the vast and growing social conversations in this country.

It can be daunting for business leaders to join the conversation in social media and admittedly on Twitter, in particular. Heavily curated digital environments sometime make for less intimidating spaces, while Twitter maintains a commitment to free speech that enables vibrant discussions from multiple sides of any given topic.

As such, while not always glossy, these conversations represent the way the world really "is," and not the way we want it to be. For this reason, customers frequently choose Twitter to talk about their thoughts and experiences with businesses.

There are many opportunities to build strong connections – we have a lot of data showing substantial lifts in brand favourability and NPS through engagement, for example – but the elevated level of scrutiny and potential for misinterpretation seem to be stopping many Canadian business leaders from joining this critical conversation. In my view, the riskiest decision is letting the conversation happen without you in it. There have never been more Canadians on Twitter. Not joining the conversation as an executive means missing out on critical information about what's happening in your industry and, ultimately, what matters to you and your business.

Here are four quick tips any executive can follow to optimize their Twitter experience:

Humanize your content and be your organization's conscience. Be real. "Corporate speak" seldom works on a platform such as Twitter. Share important content in everyday terms that speak not only to the bottom line but also from the heart of your organization.

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Engage with partners and peers. Online communication is best when it's a two-way dialogue. Actively seek out your industry colleagues. Join conversations and start new ones.

Connect with employees. Remember that Twitter can be an effective tool for both internal and external communications (your staff is on Twitter). Being transparent with the outside world sends a powerful message of inclusion and openness to your staff.

Inspire the next generation of business leaders. Twitter skews young and is well indexed to Canadians in the millennial demographic. Take time to engage, field questions and share knowledge with the next wave of executives.

Executive communication is going to continue to evolve as our world evolves. The reality is that we're all living more of our waking moments online and if you're not part of the conversation, you will be left behind.

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