What's Your Social Role: Are You A 'Susan' Or a 'Michael'?

I had actually written another column for today, but as I was putting the finishing touches on it, my friend Karl came into my office for a scheduled meeting and, in passing, dropped the following observation about a client (names have been changed to protect the innocent): "I was talking to Susan, the person who's in charge of their social media, but I'm not exactly sure what she does.  One of their tech guys, Michael, is the person who actually set up their Facebook page and Twitter account." 

Pinning down Porridge

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the corporate approach to social media. We're trying to apply the same old corporate reasoning to something that defies reason. Not only does it defy it, it seeps past it, sprouts up in unexpected places and doesn't tend to stay put when you try to jam it in a pigeonhole. Trying to contain social media within a corporate org chart is kind of like trying to pin porridge to a bulletin board. 



Within every organization, there is a mix of personalities. There are those who make the rules, those who follow the rules and a few who break the rules. Similarly, there are those with something to say, those who are content to listen and those who will carefully consider what to say before they open their mouth. Most companies try to recruit a candidate from the last camp to act as a gatekeeper for social media. It's safer -- theoretically, anyway.  

Don't Control. Do!

But here's the thing with social media. It's not about controlling, it's about doing. It's about talking, listening and responding. It's about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there. If you don't do that, you'll become "Susan," a person who has a title but isn't really in charge of anything, because it's happening all around her, thanks to the "Michaels" of the world. Social media just happens, in spite of the best-laid plans of legal and corporate governance. Trying to control it is like trying to squelch a rumor or juicy gossip. Just ask Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods or Jesse James how well that worked out for them.

And if you think it's difficult controlling this now, just wait until the fresh crop of millennials become fully entrenched in their jobs. For them, social media is mother's milk. They don't see it as something to be controlled or channeled. They regard it the same way a fish regards water - it's just there. And they don't have the same lines of delineation between their work lives and private lives that we do. There will be more and more "Michaels," those who actively participate in social because it's part of their world. And there will be fewer and fewer "Susans," because sooner or later we'll realize the futility of the role.

The Rise of Open Leadership

Charlene Li sees this as a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy halls of corporate America, forcing more transparency and authenticity and leading to "Open Leadership." "Michaels" have a way of blowing the lid off of carefully spun corporate communications, exposing the unvarnished truth that lies beneath. 

So, the question coming from the C-Suite is, "How do you control Michaels? How do you make sure they don't say something stupid or, even worse, damaging?" Well, you can't. It will happen. Just the same way that oil spills, product recalls and accounting scandals happen.

But here's something to think about. If you're scared to give your employees a voice, you don't have a social media problem. Your problem is much, much bigger than that. And all the Susan's in the world aren't going to help you.

3 comments about "What's Your Social Role: Are You A 'Susan' Or a 'Michael'?".
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  1. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., October 14, 2010 at 2:53 p.m.

    I think you're drawing the wrong conclusion from this anecdote.

    You have Susan pegged just right: she's a person with a title, consumer-level web skills, a cheery rap, and not much else beyond a religious conviction that the hype-curve of 'social' will catapult her career beyond its natural ballistic arc in marketing communications.

    Michael, I'm not so sure. I think Michael is most likely to be an intern, or a younger member of an IT staff or webdev crew -- clearly a person with some tech smarts (plus a burning desire to do _anything_ that isn't fixing a downed replication box, re-writing the login code on the homepage, or having yet another email exchange with his boss's boss's boss, delicately suggesting that it's dumb, in 2010, to have 70 engineers in the Louisville office talking to the internet over a single T1), who volunteered to build the company Facebook page because he'd just built one for his girlfriend.

    Definitely a more interesting type than Susan. But it's important to remember that neither of these folks has the experience and/or equipment to grasp enterprise strategy at toplevel (any more than Michael's boss's boss's boss does if he's still serving knowledge-worker clusters with single t-spans), and that their roles are interdependent: Michael's existence (as a commodity 'person of some technical ability, willing to cooperate with a Susan to build the Facebook page on his own time') depends on Susan's existence (as a self-starting *cough* 'innovator' and general hand-waver, capable of coming up with the idea to do so, and getting the microscopic managerial buy-in needed to make it happen).

    What's needed is a serious revamp of all these cultural assumptions. It's not enough to 'lose the Susans,' because at this point, being a Susan is a career path to which many of the youth aspire, and (outside of the engineering core and the hard managerial and operational disciplines) most of the folks in the executive suites are there because they're Susans.

    And it's not enough to 'listen to the youth,' because many of the youth are also (pick one or more) nascent Susans, pinheads, withdrawn geeks looking for a harness, or proud Future Collaborators with Corporate Managerial Hegemony.

    What you need to do -- and it has nothing to do with 'youth' -- is to find and promote smart people who have real skills and the ability to solve problems in corporate environments. You'll find these folks in critical niches, typically underneath the Susans (and being exploited from above to compensate for their inadequacies) or above the Michaels (and being exploited from below, ditto). And then you got a Revolution.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 14, 2010 at 3:47 p.m.

    John, your defining the Susans and Michaels are not limited to this aspect of a business. The newspaper business is filled with Susans and Michaels. You have explained it better than anything I have read and could ever do myself although have witnessed it way too many times.

    Gord, it is all about control. Brands - religious, pharmaceutical, political - are trying to sway your beliefs. That's advertising. Here, they have the opportunity to infultrate the masses with their messages (not that there's anything wrong about know where a good sale is) in the guise of other consumers. They can control the twists and turns while adjusting their message and products (tangible and intangible) to tune into the ears of anyone who is listening. If only 10% of the masses are convinced of the brands' messages without the brands altering that message, then that is enough control to enhance and manipulate power centers. And can cause enough damage with a small percentage for the Snidley Whiplashes to put the other 90% in tent cities.

  3. David Pavlicko from AVISPL, October 14, 2010 at 4:30 p.m.

    I think social marketing needs to be a collaborative effort and not a one-person show, for sure.

    We don't really engage in social marketing services for our clients, outside of consulting or setting up their accounts - mostly because we don't have the staff for it, but one of our clients (a local, but very popular weight loss clinic) maintains a facebook page with just over a couple thousand fans (or friends, or whatever they are now). At the start, all the employees were allowed to interact and respond to messages or questions on the wall. That worked great until a couple of the employees (replying as the Admin) responded in ways that weren't very professional...not necessarily rude, but definitely not appropriate.

    Fortunately, the patient contacted the management to voice their displeasure - they immediately rectified the situation and discovered quite a few other instances where 'inappropriate' answers or discussions were occurring. That was the end of the social free reign for them - now it is handled by 2-3 people, who have both the people skills and business acumen to be able to handle different personalities and difficult questions effectively.

    My point is this - don't hand over the reputation of your company to any ONE person or group, without maintaining some level of oversight.

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