What flight safety demonstrations can teach us about digital engagement leadership

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Customers’ preference to research before contacting prospective suppliers means it is helpful to have subject matter experts publish their views and be discoverable. Most subject matter experts are part of R&D, strategy, pre-sales or implementation consulting. Their often demanding primary roles means sharing views is an extra task. Energy and momentum from their supporting teams can make a big difference to how often, and how deeply, they develop ideas for publication.

Most team leaders and corporate marketing and communications professionals see their role as facilitating magic. This usually means staying in the background and generally being invisible outside their organisation. But this traditional stance is now creating tension. I’d like to use the analogy of flight safety to demonstrate.

“The emergency exits are located…”

If you’ve ever flown anywhere, however brief the flight, you will be familiar with flight safety demos. You will know that your lifejacket is stored under your seat, and that the emergency exits are located “here, here and here”. You will also recall that should there be a drop in oxygen pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from the panels above your head. You should, the spiel makes clear, put on your own mask first, before attending to any children.

Why do they always say this? Probably because it is contrary to the instincts of most parents, who would routinely help their children first before taking care of themselves.

But if you help your child put on their mask first, you may find it difficult to think straight, or even pass out from lack of oxygen. Then both child and adult will be in trouble. You need to be sure that you are comfortable and safe yourself before you can help others.

This concept also applies to social readiness within organisations and enterprises.

The importance of personal comfort and safety

As a manager, it is hard, if not impossible, to advocate that your staff share ideas and develop their thought leadership if you are not comfortable with that yourself. We are familiar with the concept of ‘coach as facilitator’; the idea that a good coach (or manager) can help and support people to develop their own solutions to problems. This can take you a long way. But as a manager, there is also the matter of ‘walking the walk’.

For your personal credibility, you need to be able to show that you have mastered the skill you wish others to use. In other words, it is not enough to encourage others unless you have some understanding, on a personal level, of why they might find it difficult. You are asking for your team members to say,

“But you don’t do this.”

There is really no good come-back from this. You start to sound like the parent who tells the child to ‘do as I say, not as I do’. It’s not a strong or sustainable position.

For managers in companies developing their thought leadership, this boils down to being able to demonstrate a level of comfort with the idea of being discoverable by those inside and outside the company based on your ideas. This means not just parroting the company line, but actually developing and expressing your own thoughts and arguments around concepts and problems in your business.

And the concepts of ‘inside and outside the company’ are critical. This is not simply an external issue. Thought leadership is important for building communities beyond the company, and developing relationships with customers. But it is also a vital tool in developing employee advocacy, collaborative energy and therefore productivity.

The impact of millennials in your teams

This is the generation that has grown up sharing pretty much every detail of their lives online via social media. For many, there is no distinction between online and off. It is all just part of their lives. And they are increasingly the more influential part of your workforce.

They don’t share previous generations’ concern with keeping things private. They don’t really even understand why anyone might be concerned. They expect their team leaders and managers to be visible online, to share their thoughts in public, and to be comfortable with doing so. What you may think of as putting yourself out on a limb, with a huge level of exposure, is probably considered entirely normal by your staff.

Get breathing right

If managers don’t get comfortable with sharing ideas online, and being discoverable based on those ideas, they are rapidly going to lose their teams. Higher staff turnover, and poor performance on digital channels, will almost certainly result. Managers need to step up and grab that oxygen mask right now.

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