Cutting Out The Noise

Tesla is one of the most exciting companies today. It operates at the intersection of three major technologies: high-performance automobiles, compact high-capacity batteries, and AI-driven cloud-based computation (for vehicle management & drive assistance). It is also watched for its unusual promoter who has made audacious forays in areas as diverse as space travel and renewable energy. Anything which Elon Musk says or does is covered avidly by the media, especially the business press. Most recently, he made news by announcing that he is putting together funds required to buy back Tesla shares and take the company private. He feels, like many others, that public companies face shareholder pressure to show good performance quarter-on-quarter and that this keeps them from doing things that may impact performance in the short term, but can give huge gains in the longer term. The fact that Tesla shares surged after this announcement suggests that at least some investors share this belief.

 

What is equally important is the manner in which Mr. Musk made his announcement. He used Twitter. To some people this suggested that the announcement was made on impulse. They would have liked a press release that shared data to explain why he was doing this, who was supporting him with funds, and, what was the time frame for privatization. Mr. Musk knows best what made him tweet, but we can speculate. Maybe he wanted to communicate his intent before the rumour mill went to work. Maybe he wanted to ensure that the key reasons for his decision are known to all without distortion from the layers of internal bureaucracy that prepares formal communication. Maybe he suspected premature leaks of internal company deliberations from his managers. (He did say later that some speculators seem to be making a living shorting Tesla stock). Maybe he realised that the company’s value comes, at least in some part, from investors’ faith in his personal capacity, and, he was providing such investors a transparent unfiltered view of his thought process.

 

It is too early to say whether he will continue to tweet on company policy and provide early indications on his plans. However, tweets do provide a solution to a problem faced by leaders in business and politics- How does one communicate one’s vision and opinions to all stakeholders accurately and regularly? Leaders find it easy to sell their vision and values to small groups through face-to-face interaction. When groups become larger, such opportunities become limited and new channels have to be found. Often, the channels involve intermediaries who moderate content, format and timing. All of these can distort communication. Also, it becomes very easy to slip into the comfort zone of going through the motions without fulfilling the intent. We have all been at the receiving end of messages that are issued in the name of the leader, but appear to be written by professional ghostwriters. Employees and other stakeholders quickly learn to disregard such communication. One look at the vanilla compositions carried in the business press, supposedly written by business leaders themselves, will confirm the futility of such communication.

 

Leaders who are sensitive to this invest a lot of time in ensuring authenticity. CEOs fill their calendar with town hall meetings for instance, and, also schedule random unscripted meetings with employees, partners and customers. Political leaders have to deal with much larger numbers and that takes bigger effort. Gandhiji spent a lot of time every day replying personally to letters, and, writing articles and editorials, in addition to meeting people and ensuring presence in group rituals like evening prayers. Prime Minister Modi tweets himself and also uses the radio to reach out to people regularly to personally share what is on his mind.

 

By far, the biggest example is the US President. Mr. Trump uses Twitter at all times- during the day and at night- to share his unfiltered thoughts on events and people, and to announce what he plans to do. The media spends a lot of time analysing inconsistencies and grammatical errors in his tweets. However, these do not faze his followers because they see these apparent faults as an evidence of authenticity. These ‘errors’ establish that he is ‘one of us’, that the comments are genuine and unscripted and that no one is mediating the communication.

 

There are risks in unintended distortion in communicating through Twitter, but for some, the impact, authenticity, and timeliness compensate for all that.  A piece in Inc. reveals that in 2016, less than half of Fortune 500 CEOs were using social media, including Twitter. While this piece turned up its nose at CEOs who spend time on Twitter, the business press in general is waking up to the great potential for establishing authentic communication and generating ideas and participation from stakeholders, especially when 65% of the US population is on social media. A recent piece in Forbes described how Clive Schlee, CEO of the coffee chain Pret, tweeted to generate 200 ideas for incentivising reuse of cups at their outlets. Another piece in the same publication profiled John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile, who has established 4.15 million authenticated followers on Twitter. They receive his views and product recommendations regularly and respond with validation, feedback and approval. (Authentication is done through TwitterAudit.com).

 

The power of Twitter has moved researchers to take a deeper look. A piece in MIT’s Sloan Management Review lamented that only 70% of the Fortune 500 CEOs with Twitter accounts actually used those accounts actively. The researchers studied the CEOs who did and clustered them into four categories-

 

  • Generalists: Who shared information already available elsewhere
  • Expressionists: Who stuck to topics outside the company’s business
  • Information Mavens: Who acted like curators, providing links to information on other sites
  • Business Mavens: Who shared new product announcements and strategies before these became available elsewhere

 

The last category was retweeted and followed the most. Clearly, CEOs who tweet now have data analysis to guide them on what works best.

 

Researchers have also established a weak but positive link between CEO tweets of the last type and stock price movement. And, this is another business reason for unfiltered direct communication, apart from the obvious merits in sharing vision and beliefs in a credible and direct manner. The data on Twitter use in India is rather discouraging. CEOs have been somewhat wary of its double-edged power. However, given the size of the country, and, potential filtering factors like linguistic and communal diversity, business and political leaders stand to gain by using it to increase their own effectiveness.

 

References

 

1. “Six Reasons Why CEOs Should Limit Their Social Media Use”; Monica Zent; Inc. Magazine; Jan 2018

2. “You And Your CEO Should Be Using Twitter Like This!”, Paul Armstrong; Forbes; Dec 2017

3. “How Top CEOs Leverage Social Media…”; Cheryl Conner; Forbes; Mar 2018

4. “How CEOs Can Leverage Twitter”; Claudia Kubowicz & Arvind Malhotra; MIT Sloan Management Review; Winter 2016

Gautam Brahma is a management consultant advising start-ups and SMEs, on strategy & operations including sales, HR & IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors, in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and has been a monthly columnist on HR issues for close to two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]

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