2012 has been a year of uncertainty. The economy is slowly improving, but with fits and starts and the recent IMF report confirms that the global economy is not beyond a dramatic meltdown.Close elections in the U.S. have everyone holding their breath until we know what direction the political winds are blowing. And technology continues its rapid pace of change, disrupting how we work, connect and collaborate. 

Transposed against this backdrop is a cadre of executives who were raised, came of age and developed their perspective in a different era (yes, two decades ago was a different era). They have been educated and rewarded to be decisive, aggressive, competitive and right. They have been evaluated as individuals for the success or failure of their organizations. Changing and adapting, at a personal level, has been seen as weak.

Yet these characteristics may be the very things that are causing organizational dominance and c-level tenures to be eroding so quickly. In a world of constant change, the ability of executives and leaders to change, collaborate, be open and establish trust in others is of paramount importance.

Push and Pull for Executive Leadership

At The Community Roundtable we work with a network of organizational leaders that own communities and social business initiatives who are learning how to navigate the evolving line between organizational interests and their communities’ interests -- adapting to that sweet spot of opportunity as it ebbs and flows. They are working within more traditional leadership structures while being given implicit responsibilities to make their organizations adaptable and meaningful.

As demand grows for their expertise, so too does the strain they are feeling as they bump up against rigid structures and cultures of which executive leadership styles play a big role. We believe that lack of executive leadership and understanding is currently the biggest risk to the success in social business. Said a different way, the ability for leaders to adapt will ultimately determine the ability for their organizations to adapt.

Learning from Pioneers

However, there are many great examples of senior executives using social and collaborative approaches. We can learn a lot from how they have learned about, experimented with and changed perspectives because of new opportunities.

Individuals like Mark Yolton at SAP, Sandy Carter at IBM, Mark Bertolini at Aetna and JP Rangaswami at Salesforce are all examples of executives that use social tools to listen, communicate and collaborate. More importantly, they recognize that they have something to learn from a wide variety of individuals and that extending their relationships to various audiences will help them advance their business goals.

Learning Opportunities

Because executive understanding of how social technologies are changing their markets and the world of work is such a critical barrier, we have launched a new research platform called The Social Executive. This research is designed with three goals in mind:

  1. Connect the dots between high level business strategy and how social technologies are applied
  2. Identify triggers for interest, engagement and prioritization of social initiatives
  3. Understand the executive journey in using social technologies

By documenting how executives understand social technology within the context of their business and how they adopt and use social technologies themselves, we can better provide what executives need at various points in order to:

  • Understand social technologies
  • Use social technologies
  • Support the use of social technologies within their organizations
  • Transform their organizations to address emerging opportunities and risks in their markets

We have started this research and early interviews have yielded surprises including:

  • Some executives who support and use social technologies to transform how their organizations work have very little interest in or don’t use public social media channels at all.
  • Understanding how to assess performance and improvement is not clear, even when the benefits of using social technologies are.
  • Government can be just as innovative as the commercial sector, although in both cases innovation is happening in pockets.
  • The access to executives provided by social technologies is wildly different from the traditional layers of handlers. This is both an operational challenge as well as an emotional challenge for executives who traditionally have very scripted schedules and interactions.

We are very excited to be conducting this research and are looking for potential executives to interview as well as for potential sponsors and partners. If you are interested getting involved, please contact us at [email protected].

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more of Rachel's insights into the Social Enterprise? Check out 3 Critical Social Business Trends to Watch in 2012