The Characteristics of a Social CEO

The recent Brunswick Connected Leadership Report shows that stakeholders expect executives to be active on social media. It says that those leaders who understand the importance of communicating online build authentic, trusted communities that advance business objectives and lead to tangible, real-world outcomes.

Countless other articles also appear weekly extoling the importance and value of CEOs ‘getting social.’

Despite this, there still appears to be a reluctance for many CEOs to proactively use social media. Yes, most probably have LinkedIn profiles, and some may even be on Twitter. But how many actually engage? The answer is not enough.

Over the past few years I have interviewed many CEOs who actively engage on social media (LinkedIn, Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Instagram). They come from sectors as disparate as banking, sport, healthcare, non-profits and the media. I asked them why they use social media. What do they get out it? When so many of their contemporaries seem petrified of the idea of engaging with stakeholders, I thought it a worthwhile exercise to ‘hear from the horse’s mouth’ so to speak.

The responses were fascinating and very revealing.

Quite apart from finding out why they all actively engage on social channels, perhaps the most interesting (some might say unsurprising) outcome is how many of them share the same characteristics. No, not characteristics. Let’s call them what they are: qualities. These leaders all share the same qualities. Qualities that single them out as true social leaders.

These are leaders that are benefiting from embracing the social media age, where everything is changing: the social contract between organization and individual, the nature of work, and the old structures of power and control. All are being replaced by socially moderated and dynamic forms of social leadership.

The CEOs I interviewed seem to instinctively understand this revolution and have not only adapted to it but are thriving.

So, what characteristics (qualities) do they all have in common?

Below I’ve listed what I see as the key qualities shared by all of them. Some may be ‘stronger’ in some areas than others, but they all share these common traits to a greater or lesser extent. This is the definitive checklist of social leadership.


All the CEOs I interviewed have the same mindset – one that doesn’t see the social media age as a threat, but rather as an incredible, valuable opportunity. The all instinctively understand that the rules of the game have changed utterly and that old-school ‘command and control’ and ‘hiding in the corner office’ behind an executive assistant firewall just doesn’t wash with employees, customers, supporters or investors. The value is in the community.


Being on social media requires transparency. How much or how little depends on the individual and how much of themselves they decide to show. Having a basic profile but not sharing information about yourself, your organization or your industry isn’t very transparent. Neither is lack of engagement. It’s only by sharing and interacting with people that leaders can remove the façade of elitism and get closer to stakeholders and employees. Jack Salzwedel, CEO of American Family Insurance, is a great example of transparency.


It’s no good having a huge social media following if all you share is corporate PR. All the CEOs I’ve interviewed make their posts interesting, mixing in corporate messages, comments on business or social trends – and even tweets about their hobbies and interests. They also interact with their employees. All of this shows them to be real human beings who their customers, supporters and employees can relate to.

Engage externally

Social media – especially Twitter – is all about engagement and conversation. Peter Aceto, the former CEO of Tangerine Bank in Canada, once said: “I’d rather engage in a Twitter conversation with a single customer than see our company try to attract the attention of millions in a Super Bowl commercial.” Talking to his customers on Twitter helped him – and his brand – stand out from the competition. That was his USP. A CEO obviously can’t respond to every tweet, but they can respond to some.

Engage internally

External engagement is great, but just as important is internal engagement with employees. Having a CEO who talks to his or her staff, asks questions, solicits feedback – and listens – this is powerful stuff. Again, look at Jack Salzwedel on Twitter or Brian Garish, CEO of Banfield Life on Instagram, as great examples of CEOs who engage internally.


OK – not every social CEO displays humility. Some (not the CEOs I’ve interviewed I might add!) have rather large egos. Take a look at John Legere, the former CEO of T-Mobile America, who described himself as “a vocal, animated, and sometimes foul-mouthed CEO.” No shrinking violet he. But Legere’s the exception – all of the leaders I’ve interviewed are humble and don’t blow their trumpet. Many talk about their employees – publicly acknowledging their achievements. Even John Legere did that.


Social media is public – that’s its beauty and its power. There’s no point in a CEO ‘going social’ if they’re afraid of being taken to task by what they share. They’re human, their customers and supporters are human, their employees are human, their shareholders and stakeholders are human. Leaders should not be afraid to themselves be human in the social world.


Leaders are passionate about their organizations, their industries, their causes, their stakeholders. If not, they should be! That’s why they’re where they are. It’s vital to let this passion and enthusiasm shine through on social media.  It’s infectious and people will respond very positively.

Finally – they ARE the brand

If you are the head of your organization, you’ll make an extremely powerful personal statement about yourself and your brand (be it a bank, a hospital or a non-profit) by being a social leader. You can’t get away with ‘all tweets are my own and don’t reflect my employer’. They do. All the leaders I’ve interviewed use social media to their advantage by embracing it and being their brand online.