No, most CEOs shouldn't be on Twitter

U.S. Department of State

I cringed this week as I read a WSJ article suggesting CEOs of large corporations are under increasing pressure to get on Twitter, in effort to appear "authentic" and "accessible."

#Absurd.

First, in case you missed the memo, virtually nothing most senior executives at major corporations say publically is spontaneous, unfiltered, or remotely authentic.  Every statement is drafted, edited, and subject to detailed review; for interviews, communication plans are devised and refined; proof points and anecdotes are identified and elaborated.

Some of this caution reflects regulatory obligations, and a need by senior executives to avoid making casual, market-moving statements.  Even beyond this, however, large corporations are determined to control their messaging, and obsess about it like you wouldn't believe.

Unfortunately, as Luke Timmerman (actually a big fan of Twitter) recently pointed out in Xconomy,  many company "attorneys are fearful, and so insistent on controlling messages, that it defeats the immediacy and personality that makes Twitter so popular."

But even if you could work through the communication issues (a challenge that Timmerman's article suggests some in biotech, such as Biogen's Michael Gilman, have successfully navigated), I suspect there's a much larger problem: I'm not so sure most CEOs are looking to share their personal story, and commune with the tweeps.

I return, as I often do, to this important commentary by David Brooks, arguing that being a successful CEO requires execution and organizational skills, not strong communication ability, warmth, empathy, or extraversion.  Brooks writes that the CEOs most likely to succeed are "humble, diffident, relentless, and a bit unidimensional."  They are methodical and analytic, and not driven by a desire for self-actualization.

"Stated most directly, I seriously doubt most senior corporate executives, if left to their own devices, would naturally gravitate to Twitter - and certainly not to authentically communicate." -David Shaywitz, M.D.In contrast, Brooks observes, "the virtues that writers tends to admire - those involving self-expression and self-exploration - are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence."

Stated most directly, I seriously doubt most senior corporate executives, if left to their own devices, would naturally gravitate to Twitter - and certainly not to authentically communicate.

Founding entrepreneurs, of course, seem to have a very different phenotype (a particularly relevant contrast this political season); many view their businesses as a direct form of self-expression, and are keen to be the authors of their own lives.  Twitter seems like a natural fit for many of these entrepreneurs - though it's also true that in contrast to CEOs of multinational corporations, they probably have much more to gain and much less to lose.

I'm glad I'm on Twitter, though I certainly wouldn't describe it as indispensible; sure, it's fun to learn about a breaking story before it's widely reported, but I'm not convinced this really translates into a meaningful information advantage, as some suggest.

What I enjoy the most may be the small pleasures of joining a community of my own (constantly evolving) design; I welcome the story recommendations and timely informational tidbits, but most of all, I appreciate the sense of immediacy and intimacy with people I generally like and admire, whether Dave McClure reacting to Square's valuation, Brad Feld sharing the delight of an August evening in Chicago, Adam Feuerstein responding to the occasional critic,  or Esther Dyson describing a relaxing interlude at her favorite hotel.

I just can't see the typical corporate CEOs wearing her heart on her sleeve in the same way; moreover, I'm not sure we'd really want to see this - or that it's reasonable for us to either expect or insist upon such a display.

 

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About the Author

 

David
Shaywitz
  • Dr. Shaywitz trained in internal medicine and endocrinology at MGH, and conducted his post-doctoral research in the Melton lab at Harvard. He gained experience in early clinical drug development in the Department of Experimental Medicine at Merck, then joined the Boston Consulting Group’s Healthcare and Corporate Development practices, where he focused on strategy and organizational design. He is currently Director of Strategic and Commercial Planning at Theravance, a publicly-held drug development company in South San Francisco. He recently wrote Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entreprenuers Heal Healthcare With Technology? 

  • Email: davidshaywitz.aei@gmail.com

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