Harnessing social networks can help CLOs wrangle executive fears and unleash the hidden value of collaboration.
The practice of networking among industry peers, co-workers, customers and other business contacts has been transformed in recent years. It used to be networking mainly meant meeting a client for lunch, scheduling face time at a trade show or talking shop with co-workers over a drink.
Oh, how times have changed. In-person networking remains the gold standard because of the value of face-to-face interaction, but technology innovation has brought networking into the digital age with the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
While it may be fun for people to catch up with old high school friends or post their latest summer vacation photos, social media is not just a networking playground for consumers. Businesses are increasingly using it to connect more frequently and effectively with their internal and external audiences. Corporate social networking is fueling technology developments and gaining traction among businesses.
Taming the Wild Beast
Corporate social networking offers many of the same features we are becoming accustomed to in the consumer world. There are wikis, blogs and employee profiles, but with extra levels of security and organizational control built in for managing the technology.
It can be easy for an organization to feel overwhelmed amid the noise about social media and the ongoing questions about how to use it, manage the applications and leverage for competitive advantage. But there are ways to tame the seemingly wild world of social media and adapt it for various business purposes, such as sales, product development, customer support and talent management.
Social media can be marshaled to provide a focused, simplified leadership networking tool that can be used for training, idea sharing and problem solving.
Hilton Garden Inn, a global hotel brand, is working with PDI Ninth House to implement such a leadership networking tool across its entire portfolio of nearly 500 properties. With the popularity of social networks, the hotel chain saw an opportunity to take some of the best attributes of the technology, already being used by many of its team members, to facilitate enhanced communication among its general managers. A brand-sponsored networking site, called MyHGI, unites all the general managers on one platform and creates consistency.
“What we were looking for was a way to facilitate business networking — not necessarily social networking that you find on traditional mainstream networking sites,” said Adrian Kurre, global head of Hilton Garden Inn. “Our goal is for general managers to have one place to go that is focused on finding answers and sharing best practices with others who manage similar properties, such as airport or downtown Hilton Garden Inns.”
A leadership network helps individual general managers tap a broader universe of colleagues for insights and ideas. Without such a leadership network, a general manager struggling with a customer issue, for example, may primarily rely on resources within the brand support structure. But today, that same manager can gather the expertise of numerous colleagues to effectively and quickly solve the problem.
A Two-Way Street
For internal business networking to generate true business benefits for the larger organization, there are a couple of key qualities that must be established among the business leaders — trust and respect. Without trust and respect, the value of the network quickly disappears and executives decide they have better things to do.
These elements are a necessity if there is to be a sharing of ideas and willingness to chat not only about successes, but also what was learned from a particular failure. Managers are recognizing how much business benefit they gain by being able to ask each other questions and nearly instantaneously learn best practices and share anecdote lessons.
Without the elements of trust and respect, leaders will try to network, but they’ll primarily be consumers of information and not contribute their depth of knowledge. If the network becomes all take and no give, it won’t survive.
Overcoming Perceived Challenges
The goal with networking, in whatever form it takes, is that it must include ongoing dialogue. That can be a challenge as people get wrapped up in their daily lives. But without regular engagement, there is no growth in relationships; business opportunities are missed; and action items are not completed.
Ironically, the best way to ensure a strong network is to have participants first meet face to face, where personal connections can be made. Participants aren’t faceless names, which impacts their interest in working together. And while it is not always feasible to meet in person, an initial meet-and-greet will help keep a learning network active. It is much harder to ignore someone’s e-mails if you have already met them in person.
Of course, trying to introduce an online learning network may raise some concern among executives. For starters, the willingness to share “what went wrong” situations may cause uneasiness. After all, executives want to protect their reputations and not reveal anything they feel will reflect poorly on their leadership abilities.
To help overcome any initial hesitation, identify an advocate within the group who is willing to discuss such stories. Executives are not expected to talk about catastrophic business failures, merely key takeaways from a particular issue. For example, maybe there was a marketing campaign that didn’t generate the sales leads the company had hoped for or there was a customer service situation that ended poorly.
Another common concern is lack of time. For a busy executive, engaging in a business network is just one more thing to manage for a person already buried in reports, crisis situations and meetings. Meanwhile, executives may fear for their job security if they don’t stay engaged in an internal corporate network. As noted in an InformationWeek article on corporate social networking, people may think, “Swell, then instead of losing friends by neglecting Facebook, I could lose my job by not keeping up with a Facebook at work.”
The important thing for individuals in these situations is to relax. A learning network social media tool is specifically designed to relieve on-the-job anxiety, not cause it. The framework and features are much more narrowly defined than the common consumer social media applications. And it can be set up inside an existing internal application so business leaders do not have to juggle additional passwords. The learning network is just one more helpful tool in the toolbox. In the case of the Hilton Garden Inn, general managers are not required to use it; it is optional.
Kurre said, “We knew it couldn’t be a mandate to use MyHGI, and that general managers would have to start sharing on their own, but if they did, the site would bring a new business value.”
How Does It Work?
The first step is to formalize the approach to the learning network so there is structure, focus, businesswide transparency and professionalism. An ecosystem for managers to network establishes a common starting point for forming communities and groups.
This is where having an initial in-person group meeting can be beneficial to kick things off. The face-to-face time helps get everybody comfortable with each other and form those initial connections. Then, as people scatter across the organization, they may be more willing to stay connected electronically and help each other out.
At Hilton Garden Inn, new hotel general managers are introduced to the learning network at the chain’s standard orientation meeting. The site coordinators familiarize them with the key elements of the tool and instruct them on how to use it. The first group they join within the tool is the group of orientation participants.
The learning network is set up as groups of participants who share similar responsibilities, operations and hotel locations. Contrary to a consumer-driven social media network, it is not a random collection of friends or followers. The structure provides the targeted benefits the leaders need to better do their jobs. If a vice president of supply chain management is thrown together with the head of accounting, for example, the return on investment is diminished since they don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.
In the Hilton Garden Inn case, groups are organized by the nature of their location. There are separate groups on the network for hotels operating in downtown locations, airport environments and suburban destinations. The open networking within a particular group allows for efficiency and the ability to discover what peers are doing to address a particular situation. This can help improve employee performance, which, in turn, can improve organizational performance.
A learning network can be configured so that when a participant sends a message, it goes to the person’s specific peer group. Comments are automatically shared with the entire group, and there is no feature for communicating one on one with another executive. If follow-up with a specific individual is required, it can be handled via e-mail or phone.
To keep it simple, the learning networking site for the Hilton Garden Inn properties contains three main areas:
- Personal information about each general manager, such as name and hotel location.
- Information about each group set up on the network.
- A general manager hot line for urgent questions.
For the Hilton Garden Inn chain, the learning network’s success is measured by the level of participation, the sharing of information that solves real problems and the opportunity to take key learnings from the site and formulate best practices for everyone to see.
While a key ingredient for any learning network is leadership participation, a second key ingredient is quality information. Participants should offer insightful thoughts, post helpful comments and share any supporting materials that can provide extra information. To help ensure quality information exchange, a learning network can incorporate a ratings system for posted content.
The Hilton Garden Inn appropriately implemented a ratings system that mirrors what one might find when searching for a good hotel or restaurant, except the site’s rating system uses dollars to mimic the hotels’ goal of increasing revenue. The hotel general managers are using a monetary value system to rate specific documents that are posted, with the range of one dollar sign to 10 dollar signs. The more dollar signs, the more beneficial the information was to fellow general managers.
Keeping It Real
Real-world application is always the best proof for whether a concept is valid. Hilton Garden Inn general managers are already seeing the value of posting their questions and insights and look forward to expanding how they leverage the networking tool. For example, a downtown hotel manager may seek best practices advice for checking in convention guests when the lines are long. An airport property manager may want to know the best way to print out guest airline boarding passes.
“You could see the excitement among general managers the moment they started discussing the possibilities,” said Kevin L. Boudreaux, a general manager for Hilton Garden Inn, Roanoke Rapids, N.C.
Boudreaux provided an example from his own professional experience. “I was looking for check presenters [a type of receipt for inputting credit card information] at restaurants and I needed to find a vendor that could give us the ability to add a logo,” he said. “I sent out a question via MyHGI, and within minutes I had a vendor and a solution. It sounds simple, but it’s a huge asset to save time on the simple tasks so I can focus on bigger business issues.”
Robin Godfrey, a general manager in South Carolina, added that she “encounters challenges on a daily basis and wants unique ideas that will resolve issues quickly. The MyHGI tool really helps. Without the tool, we needed to resolve issues internally inside our hotel. With this site, ideas and opportunities are endless. For example, we’re looking for ideas for summer travel packages, and it’ll be great to contact other hotels to see what they’re doing.”
What is working in the hospitality industry can deliver the same value to virtually any industry. Building a bond that is based on common challenges is a strategy that has served businesses well over the years. It is now possible to enhance that strategy by adapting the social media tools that are revolutionizing networking.Filed under: Leadership Development