In Real Leaders Don't Follow, Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak offers his theory about why social media is not the be all and end all for creating business success that many claim it to be and he explains what it really takes to grow a successful company.
Unti Vineyards is a boutique family-owned winery in Sonoma Valley owned and run by cofounders George Unti, his wife, Linda, and their son, Mick. Unti has been successful because the family found a niche they loved that set them apart from their competitors—selling Italian and French Rhone varietals. Then they built their brand and reputation on a great product.
So how did these folks get to be so business savvy? Well, they didn’t just decide one day to be wine entrepreneurs. George’s parents were farmers, and he had a nearly 40-year career as an executive with Safeway. Mick spent many years in the wine business before cofounding the winery with his dad. And although Linda’s not really that involved in the business, she’s a former top communications executive with Visa and National Semiconductor.
These people had serious business chops before they embarked on this path. First they had successful careers and gained valuable experience by learning how to manage and how business works. Then they started their own business and eventually made great products that customers love. Now they have a successful business and brand. And that’s how it usually works.
But there are many people today who think that personally branding themselves is the way to build a business. But that couldn't be further from the truth! To say the personal branding fad has gotten a little out of hand has to be the mother of all understatements. It goes way beyond Generation Me—user-generated content is a phenomenon that crosses all demographics and borders.
Countless millions post online to promote themselves, build their brands, and grow their networks daily. They believe that activity is somehow beneficial to their business and their career. For many, it is their business and their career.
But for those who’ve made it their business, is it a viable business? Is it a real career that can make you happy and pay the bills? I know you think it is. I know the social media hordes say it is. But is it really?
Posting online is like going to the beach and pouring a bucket of ice into the ocean. At first, you can see some ripples in the water. If you stick your hand in, it might even feel a little cooler. But give it a few seconds and it’s as if nothing ever happened. Sure, there were some short-term localized effects. But did it really make a difference? Nope.
Social media is the same way. You probably have a relatively small circle of followers who aren’t busy or disciplined enough to resist the addictive tug of their limbic systems and cultural conformity. They have little business impact, and, as a result, their attention isn’t worth much. As for those you want to reach, those you seek to influence—potential customers and hiring managers—there’s simply too much noise for them to hear you. Besides, they’re too busy working and making money in the real world.
As communication goes, social media is terribly inefficient. Think about it. When you talk to folks one-on-one, you have a chance of engaging them. It’s not a slam dunk, mind you. People have lots of things on their minds, and what you say may be of little interest or low on their priority list. But at least you might make a real connection. The odds of all those tweets, status updates, posts, emails, videos, comments, and messages making a real connection that might materially impact your business is about the same as someone in Tokyo noticing the ripples from your California ice cubes.
Don’t get me wrong: Social media has a purpose, especially for certain professionals. If you’re a celebrity or a member of the media, Twitter and Facebook are important. If you’re a recruiter, so is LinkedIn. And all of us have to have a profile there. LinkedIn is your resume, more or less. But for the vast majority, spending a lot of time blogging, tweeting, and posting on those sites won’t count for much. Sure, you’ll get hits, but converting them into real opportunities or business is another matter entirely.
Now let me pose a simple question: If social media is such a powerful business tool, why don’t the most successful companies and their CEOs use it? According to a joint CEO. com and Domo study from 2013, the vast majority of Fortune 500 chief executives have absolutely no social media presence whatsoever. So why are top executives so disconnected?
For one thing, the business case isn’t credible. That’s right, I said it. I committed social media heresy. But everything I’ve read that says otherwise is entirely anecdotal and inconclusive. Contrary to popular groupthink in the social media collective, followers and page views don’t translate to return on investment. That leap of faith might be good enough for the self-interested companies that do the surveys and the social media marketers who post and tweet all sorts of nonsense on the subject, but it isn’t good enough for the executives who make critical business decisions on a daily basis.
There’s another very good reason top executives don’t waste their time on social media: They have no time to waste. They have no time for anything except what really matters. There may be a four-hour workweek for the social media entrepreneurs who call themselves CEOs while blogging in their pajamas, but for the real deal, if it’s a choice between adding to an 80-hour workweek or spending a few hours with their family, that’s a no-brainer—if they want to keep their family happy, that is.
For the record, I’m not saying companies should not invest in social media as part of their overall communications and customer support strategy. Of course they should. I’m also not saying companies don’t benefit from making certain executives available to the media and promoting them as thought leaders. To that extent, social media is simply another PR or sales support channel.
If personal branding, social networking, content generation, and all that goes with it is a big part of your life, if you think you can build some sort of entrepreneurial career on top of that foundation, the sooner you realize you’re building a house of cards, the better. It’s holding you back from making something of yourself.
Don’t be in a hurry to call yourself an entrepreneur or a CEO until you have a real business or startup developing a real product. After all, your reputation isn’t built on a title, a Twitter handle, a LinkedIn profile, or a bunch of blog posts. It’s built on actions, not words. It’s built on experience, capability, accountability, and credibility. It’s built on business savvy and smart decision making. It’s built on developing and selling great products customers love.
It’s time to put on your adult clothes and get out in the real world where the customers, careers, and opportunities are. That’s where you’ll find your true passion: what you love to do, and what you can do better than anyone else. That’s where you’ll make a real name for yourself. That’s where you’ll build your real reputation.