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C-through: 12 C-suite executives leading social transparency

By Heliz Mazouri / October 31, 2018

A social presence is no longer filed under “nice to have” for today’s C-suite, it’s part of the job.

Trust and transparency are two of the most vital components to a brand’s identity and C-suite leadership have a unique opportunity to convey that brand identity directly, immediately and openly on social media.

Despite that, it’s reported that only 40% of Fortune 500’s CEOs are active users on at least one social platform. Considering that 70% of consumers want and expect C-suite leadership to be on social, not meeting them there is a big loss.

Your executive presence on the biggest stage in the world is part of a duty and to disregard social as a platform to expand and educate on your brand’s story is more than being a little conservative, it’s a hit to your bottom line.

There’s an old way and a right way to use social media. The old way is to use it passively—lurk, allow your pages to sit idle, shut off comments in the midst of controversy. The right way—the way that we’re seeing some C-suite executives already using social—is to be an open book. There’s honesty, grit, integrity, vulnerability and real connection there.

These execs are challenging the status quo from their social feeds and they’re the ones taking leaps that will eventually flood their industries with new possibilities.

1. Alexis Ohanian Sr. – Co-founder of Reddit

It would be a disappointment, to say the least, if Co-founder of Reddit—the largest forum on the internet—were a social hermit.

Luckily, he’s not. Ohanian navigates the complexities of a social-first lifestyle with ease, using Instagram to show us his family-man side and Twitter to show us his more business-minded side.

While offering an equally transparent and authentic presence across both, the CEO strikes balance in relatability with life and family content, plus behind-the-scenes peeks at initiatives with business partners, as well as using his platform to lay a stake in the ground on the issues he feels passionate about.

He’s not technically Reddit’s active CEO any longer—he stepped aside this year to focus on a venture firm he also co-founded, Initialized Capital—but he will always be a Reddit founder and example for executives on social.

Find Alexis on Twitter and Instagram.

2. Jen Gotch – CEO of Ban.do

Truly a beacon of social transparency, Jen Gotch—CEO of Ban.do, an L.A.-based design house—created a brand that exemplifies happiness. And if you know anything about the exec herself (it’s hard not to) a brand enveloped in happiness is a direct commentary on her life itself.

Gotch uses her social platform to encourage more normalized discussion around mental health, often baring it all on Instagram and representing the sort of realness consumers want out of anyone influential in the social-sphere, let alone a C-suite executive.

She’s even moved forward with a podcast, tying in her reality, her social perception and her brand all in one, “Jen Gotch is Ok… Sometimes.”

Her personal social accounts, as well as her brand’s accounts, demonstrate a true transparency in how they operate by pulling back the curtain on her office culture and making it crystal clear what that culture stands for.

Her personal brand bleeds so much into the brand and business she runs, it truly sets an example for what business looks like in 2018.

Find Jen on Instagram.

3. Brian Chesky – CEO of Airbnb

We’ve watched Airbnb use their ads to comment on its political stance regarding sociopolitical issues. The sentiment doesn’t die with the ads, as CEO, Brian Chesky, often follows through with the message using his own social platforms.

Chesky has steered the hospitality service through regulatory opposition, headline-generating safety incidents and an existential crisis around discriminatory behavior on its platform. All with his Twitter account.

Beyond making clear stakes in the ground, Chesky has been known to use Twitter as a space to connect with customers for market research. On Christmas Day in 2016, he turned to Twitter with a simple question: “If Airbnb could launch anything in 2017, what would it be?”

It didn’t take long for him to receive hundreds of ideas from his followers, spending hours engaging with them. What better way to know what direction to take your business in than to ask your customers directly?

When people know they’re dealing with the decision-maker instead of a generic brand account, there’s a confidence that their role in your brand matters.

Find Brian on Twitter.

4. Bozoma Saint John – CMO of Endeavor

Uber’s former Chief Brand Officer and Endeavor’s current CMO, Bozoma Saint John embeds her social presence with authenticity in a way that makes her feel like another friend in your social feed.

Saint John recognizes that, especially in the high-tech industry, transparency is crucial to inspire consumer trust and loyalty. Speaking at SXSW, she said, “It’s very important that we’re using this moment in time to understand what our humanity is. It is about transparency at the end of the day. Even in moving on from Uber, she saw an opportunity with Endeavor to change the narrative around diversity and inclusion, a topic we know she’s passionate about because she shows us a clear stance on social.

Between Uber and Endeavor, Saint John was brought on to work with Papa John’s in order to revamp the company’s image following the former CEO John Schnatter’s indiscretions. And she vouched on Twitter to hold the brand accountable in her work with them.

Find Bozoma on Twitter.

5. Emily Weiss – Founder and CEO of Glossier

Transparency may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of the beauty industry. In the social era, beauty brands and influencers alike get a bad rap for a perceived phoniness that’s caked on the community these days.

But as founder of the social-bred cosmetics company, Glossier, Emily Weiss instead wants to see more realness. She uses her platform to create and foster an open dialogue about the beauty industry and standards for women.

“We’re trying to own that conversation of beauty online,” Weiss told Recode.

Weiss and the brand explore ways for customers to engage directly with Glossier, listening to users and the direct relationships they can have with every single person.

She often talks about the concept of beauty as “an emotional product,” and pushes customer content, behind-the-scenes peeks at product development and thought leadership content centered around women in business.

Find Emily on Twitter and Instagram.

6. Jonathan Mildenhall – CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand

Sometimes all it takes to connect with your audience is reminding people what makes you an individual, not just a business leader.

Jonathan Mildenhall, Founder and CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand and former CMO of AIrbnb, often uses his social presence to share marketing lessons and Tweets about the greatness of humanity and creativity. And in 2017, Mildenhall used social to challenge the famed Cannes Lions—the largest global festival for those working in creative communications and advertising—for its lack of diversity.

His Tweets resulted in a sit-down with the CEO of Ascential, the holdings company that owns Cannes Lions, where the executive lauded him for broadening his definition of diversity.

There’s a reason he was named one of the world’s most influential CMOs by Forbes in 2017.

Find Jonathan on Twitter.

7. Richard Branson – Founder and CEO of Virgin Group

Some of today’s C-suite have been leading the social transparency charge for years. It’s not just a trend for them, it’s how they cultivate their brand’s identity. And as long as the conversation is about executives rocking social, Richard Branson will never be out of vogue.

The CEO of Virgin has mastered social not by means of strategy or canned statements, but by using the platform like anyone else would—to share experiences. Whether he’s sharing his latest interview, his latest adventure or simply things that interest him—he’s consistent and this inherently builds the perception of a more transparent brand.

Find Richard on Twitter.

8. Sundar Pichai – CEO of Google

The leader of Google makes being active on social look effortless.

Pichai frequently updates his Twitter feed, often sharing insightful glimpses into what Google as a company is noodling on and how the brand as a whole is exploring tech trends in the industry.

He was named one of Forbes 2018 Most Reputable CEOs and his social presence highlights that accolade.

Find Sundar on Twitter.

9. John Legere – CEO of T-Mobile

Definitely seen as a social thought leader, T-Mobile’s John Legere uses social as his medium of choice for major events, like announcing T-Mobile’s proposed merger or coming out swinging in support of customers after the Equifax data breach.

For Legere, social is all about personality and bold statements.

Legere himself has 5.79 million followers on Twitter. Compared to T-Mobile’s biggest rival, Verizon, which has 1.68 million followers on its verified company page, that’s a statement.

Find John on Twitter.

10. Mary Barra – CEO of General Motors

Mary Barra needs little introduction; she’s a Fortune 100 leader with an active following on multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Barra has navigated the risks and is getting the most out of social. During a difficult recall situation for GM, Barra didn’t let anyone else speak on her behalf. Rather than staying silent on the sidelines she accepted her role as the brand’s main communicator and engaged directly with the public.

Find Mary on Twitter.

11. Daniel Elk – CEO of Spotify

CEO of Spotify, Daniel Elk, wanted to see if there was a way to push more trust and transparency in the industry. The goal? To foster the sort of openness that helps you tell the brand story a little differently.

On Twitter you’ll find Elk engaging with Spotify’s following about what’s happening in and around the realm of music. But overall, Elk uses social the way anyone would. It sounds mundane, but for the CEO of a major international brand, it’s practically revolutionary.

Find Daniel on Twitter.

12. Mark Benioff – CEO of SalesForce

The CEO of Salesforce, Mark Benioff, has a lot of hot takes on industry topics. We know this because his Twitter feed is nothing short of a platform to sound-off.

He’s been known for years to take other tech CEOs to task over public issues, like the gender pay gap, and one look at his current Twitter feed shows no signs of him slowing down.

Find Mark on Twitter.

Influence starts at the top

Consumers, employees, investors, and onlookers across the social landscape look to a brand’s leader to decide what that brand stands for—in the good times and the bad.

With social transparency, executives have a unique opportunity to not only be the voice of their brand’s story, but to get ahead of that story and be at the helm of social conversations the way they’re at the helm of their business. To skip out on that is to hurt your brand, your bottom line and the heart at the center of everything you work toward.

Heliz Mazouri

Heliz Mazouri

Heliz is a staff writer for Adapt by Sprout Social. Prior to settling in the tech industry, she'd developed content for scrappy start-ups to Fortune 500’s to international media outlets. When she’s not seeking compelling stories to tell about social, she’s seeking compelling conversation and a coffee.
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