Iconic CEOs of the time, such as John Akers of IBM, could demonstrate their accessibility and connection to the day-to-day workings of their organizations purely by leaving the executive floors and touring the IBM locations in the US and worldwide.

The modern CEO and the leadership cadre of large organizations can only look back with nostalgia to such a time when the ideal methods of leading were so straightforward. Today, the C-suite has two large and unique challenges that have never before been faced by leaders (particularly CEOs).

Not only is there a physical workplace to lead (as there always has been) but now there is a digital workplace that requires constant attention as well. The workforce is working within both physical and virtual environments and, therefore, even MBWA leadership now means “walking around" in the digital as well as the physical world. 

So what are the key attributes, qualities or characteristics of being a great leader in the modern digital workplace?

1:Treat leadership as stretching far beyond your corporate boundaries

When Jack Welch became the youngest CEO ever to lead GE in 1981, he knew who he was in charge of -- the employees, pure and simple. In 2014, Jeff Immelt, the current CEO of GE, has multiple stakeholders, all requiring his attention. In a modern organization such as GE, there are still the employees, but then there are also long-term contractors (who can outnumber the staff); a fluid freelance community; and the supply chain (critical to business success) – to name just a few.

For a company such as Unilever, this wider audience includes 100,000 people in the supply chain; partners of all types who might manage outsourced logistics; customers, ranging from large entities to consumers, depending on the sector; and the broader “marketplace.”

Viewed through this lens, the employees now look like the most straightforward group since at least they are working for the organization on the payroll. The digital workplace is blurring the divide between what we mean by “inside” and “outside.” Leaders must be present and active in the digital world of work and, in so doing, will find that their remit has expanded exponentially.

2: Digital social engagement seen as a core leadership requirement

While there is a distinction between tactical social media use and a sustained, strategic approach to “digital leadership,” it is alarming that, according to a 2013 study by CEO.com, less than a third of CEOs of the 500 highest revenue companies in the US have even one account on a social network such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook -- and 68 percent have no social media presence at all.

Just as alarming is that only 5 percent of CEOs have a Twitter account, despite almost 20 percent of US adults having one -- so your staff, suppliers and customers are there, but you are absent. The exceptions demonstrate what can be achieved. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin, has (at the time of writing) over 4.5 million followers on Twitter. The brand value to Virgin of Branson’s reputation and communication capacity is huge. Even Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!, who tends to divide opinion due to her “come back to the office” mantra, has over half a million Twitter followers and maintains a Tumblr account.

In using such media inside and outside the organization, strong leaders treat this as a routine part of their role and not some intrusion purely instigated to keep the corporate communications people happy.

3.Embrace the digital channels of enterprise communication as a gift not a burden

The power of Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook for such C-suite executives is that they can instantly, and with minimal use of their time, connect with large numbers of people they lead across all sections of their universe. As one Economist article in January 2013 put it ahead of that year’s Davos gathering: “How can you be a leader if you do not have followers?”

The digital workplace offers great opportunities for CEOs and other leaders to communicate, engage and connect with employees instantly and continually on a global basis. Take Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO at Dow Chemical, a global specialty chemical company. Liveris has regularly delivered an employee blog called “Access Andrew” to the firm’s 54,000 global employees since 2007.

His blog posts are usually delivered weekly and attract anything between 15,000 to 25,000 visits per post, receiving up to 50 comments, indicating that the blog is popular with employees.

This example isn’t just about internal PR. It demonstrates a fundamental shift that CEOs need to make from “command and control.” Senior leaders still need to take key strategic decisions but they also need to understand their roles as listening, facilitating, collaborating and guiding.

4.Speak in your own voice is a must - it’s not a ghost writing activity relegated to the communications team

One of the most important elements of the Liveris blog is that it is authored by Andrew himself so it has his own authentic voice (although it is checked by the legal and communications teams before publishing). This helps create a sense of connection with the CEO that is unusual in a company of Dow’s size and type.

Another critical feature is that employees are encouraged to leave comments. These are moderated but hardly any have ever been removed. Subsequently, the blog has emerged as a channel for dialogue, with employees regularly asking questions and other leaders contributing answers in the thread.

Learning Opportunities

Based on the annual “Trust Barometer” published by public relations firm Edelman, only 20 percent of people surveyed trusted business leaders to tell the truth. Regular, self-generated communication from CEOs can build trust and at least the appearance of accessibility.

A widely known example is Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, who is as much a celebrity in his own right as he is a business leader (akin to Richard Branson). Benioff’s high profile and reputation have helped to propel Salesforce.com to its success.

Many of Benioff’s communications are personally delivered and built on his own experiences, so that the history of Salesforce.com is also about him. Like Steve Jobs and Apple, the development and brand of the company is wrapped up with that of the CEO.

Benioff also gives the impression that he is accessible, often communicating via his Twitter channel and regularly interacting with other tweeters as well as posting photos. A similar approach is taken on his Google Plus page. He often posts messages stating that the best way to get hold of him is via his email address, [email protected]

5.Engage with all subjects – no matter how difficult or sensitive, or even personal

In the Liveris blog, multiple issues are addressed and it does not shy away from difficult subjects, for example, executives who have left Dow. Liveris covers business issues and gives his personal opinions, for instance, on business books he has read. The blog has helped to revolutionize internal communications at Dow by providing a direct, open and honest channel that means employees can get to know their CEO a little better and vice versa.

With this sort of approach to openness, honesty and vulnerability, the top executive at a company can set a powerful example. Employees at all levels start to feel they can be themselves, be human. This builds community and trust within an organization, leading to higher levels of commitment and satisfaction on the job.

6. Shift culture, step by step, to one based on outputs rather than inputs

In the digital world of work, the habits of the 20th century, which were founded on judging people based on the effort they appeared to expend or the volume of time they spent “at their desks,” have little relevance. The thing that counts is what people produce and the results they achieve, irrespective of how they achieve those results, within reasonable boundaries.

This means shifting the culture through leadership examples from one based on input to one based on output. How leaders and their teams work, and how they manage their own reports, set the tone of the organization. Inside the Digital Workplace Group (DWG), where I am CEO of an 80-person consulting company, my pattern is persistently to show indifference to when and where people work, focusing instead on their results and the quality of their work.

7. Focus all leaders on providing support to those engaged most directly with the market and customers

Having too many layers of senior executives and levels of management in place is corrosive in the modern digital workplace. Reducing, refining and reorienting leadership is part of the way of leading now required. In Amazon, for instance, hierarchy and leadership exist but the power structure has become thin and transparent.

This form of leadership is described in management theory as “Servant Leadership,” where the aim of senior leaders is to support those within the organization, who in turn focus on improving their own tiny part of the service. In the case of Amazon, this might be working on the optimum position of a screen button or evaluating the best “bottom of screen” deals.

Title image by GollyGForce (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license