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November 2012

When Hizzoner Tweets

Have you heard of Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey? You should check him out.

I "met" Cory online after the last Stanford bowl game.  The Stanford kicker shanked a couple of field goal attempts that would have otherwise won the game for Stanford, and what followed was an outpouring of "hang in there, kid" responses via various social media. Cory, a former Stanford football player, was one of the respondents. We traded a few comments after that, and at one point I said something like, "It's not about what you did at Stanford, it's about what you've done since Stanford." Ever since, we've been connected at the Twitter hip.

So Cory's something of a Twitter personality (what's the Twitterverse word for that?). He's also received some press as a kind of up-and-coming Obama protégé. Maybe; I don't really know about that stuff. What fascinates me, though, is the way that Cory uses Twitter to connect with his constituents and maintain a human "face" for Newark government. With the unfortunate devastation of New Jersey by Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Superstorm/it-was-big-as-hell/ Sandy, Cory's been amazing to observe. Here's a clip from a recent Twitter stream.

What do you see here?

  • Cory is repeatedly delivering the message, "we're doing all we can for you." I've often had to explain to support engineers that it's not enough to work on the problem, you have to let people know that you're working on it. And so all these municipal departments, which are working their butts off to restore power and the like, could be excused if they said, "we don't have time to acknowledge you, we're trying to fix things!" But Cory takes the time. He doesn't over-promise or blame others. He just repeats his message: "we're working on it."
  • Cory's telling you what he (and the rest of the city's employees) is/are doing. He's not bragging. He's not creating the Twitter equivalent of a photo-opp. He's just stating the facts: we have to get power to these seniors or we'll have to move them.
  • Cory answers every tweet, and treats every tweeter with respect. Someone says he's favoring one part of the city over another? He respectfully disagrees. Someone mockingly says he needs food because he's running out of hot pockets to eat? Cory suggests he's big enough to solve that problem himself. Someone needs encouragement? Cory offers it. Someone asks why Cory's house has power when theirs (down the street) doesn't? Cory offers his home. And he seems to mean it.
  • Cory seems to create his own tweets. Follow a few CEO's or other people in positions of authority, and you can quickly figure out who has handed the Twitter account over to some communications director. Maybe Cory has as well, but it sure doesn't sound like it.

I'm not sure why Cory first decided to use Twitter, but whatever the reason I can tell you that it's done a lot to build his brand. What is your perception of Cory in reading through these tweets?

  • He's someone who cares about me.
  • He's responsive to my needs.
  • He's working hard to marshal the resources needed to resolve this emergency.

Regardless of your politics, isn't that the kind of person you'd like to have representing you?

What This Means for Managers

One aspect of leadership is being—and being seen as—out in front; of the market, the technology, the problem, etc. And Twitter certainly helps communicate that position.  Billy Crystal once said, "a writer writes, always."  I've adapted that saying as "as a leader leads, always."

But there is a danger here, especially if you're a manager responsible for a large organization. The danger is that this kind of transparency and over-communication can make you look like a superhero, as though you're personally responsible for the actions of your entire organization.

Setting yourself up as the face of your organization is great. But you want to make sure you're not seen as being the entire organization. The people in your organization may feel that you're enhancing your brand at their expense. They may feel like they're redundant or disempowered to take action. At its extreme, being perceived as the one (and only) person in your organization that can get stuff done can cause the rest of your team to sink into a passive "I just do what I'm told" attitude—not what you want from them.

So the key is to find the right balance: get out front and lead when appropriate, and step back and let others take the lead when that feels like the right thing to do.

Cory's a bright guy, and I'm sure he understands this. We can learn a lot by observing the way he's embraced Twitter and social media. We can also learn by watching him walk that line between speaking for City of Newark employees and allowing them do get credit for the work they do.  Have a look at what Cory is doing with Twitter and ask yourself: "how could I apply this to communicating with my employees? partners? customers?