Walking the talk: how intranets support effective leadership

Every year, Edelman’s respected Trust Barometer shows a fall in trust in CEOs. Internal comms pros note this trend is reflected internally too, with many highlighting the need to rebuild trust in and increase visibility of leaders as one of their top priorities for 2015.

Fortunately, the way intranets have evolved in recent years has made that easier. No longer are intranet pros limited to a few homepage stories to try and build a connection between employees and top brass. Here’s a a few tactics that employ the social elements of your ESN to show your leadership as real human beings.


Revolutionary, we know, but communication is a two-way process. Your management teams can show they’re listening to people by doing just that. Realistically, your CEO isn’t going to spend a huge amount of time with the ESN (employee social network) open on their desktop, so there are ways to make it easier for them.

  • Provide regular analysis and dashboards of hot topics
  • Send them regular (daily or weekly) pointers on key conversations they may find of interest
  • Spend some time with them showing them how to find conversations on the topics they care about
  • Show them how they can fit being visible on your ESN into their way of working


ESNs give your leaders myriad ways in which they can give employees an insight into the work they do day to day – dispelling myths about them spending their time an ivory tower. Blogging can take many forms, from a standard text story to instagrams-style selfies. Tony Stewart, International Community Manager at NBC Universal has coached his leaders to do YouTube-style videos after key meetings, keeping colleagues in the loop about their work in a way that really works for their video-loving corporate culture.

Remember, blogging is a two-way medium; encourage your leaders to respond to comments left below the line.

Gathering input

Leaders often say they want to tap into the expertise and knowledge of those on the frontline – but how often do they actually do that? Most social intranets offer ideation features, which allow people to suggest and vote on ideas.

Less formally, discussion features can be used to host live online style chats – inviting employees to leave questions, and have your senior leader answer questions for a set time. If your CFO says he’s too busy, remind him that even the President of the United States found the time to do a Reddit Ask Me Anything.


Studies on employee motivation regularly find people are motivated by far more than money, but often by the recognition of a job well done. ESNs allow leaders to recognise and thank employees through acts as simple as a ‘like’ or comment – simple, meaningful interactions that even the most time-poor exec can do from the back of a taxi. Having the CEO come round to your office and post a selfie is a simple and very visible way of scaling up the concept of walking the floor.

Joining the conversation

Execs don’t need to wait for people to comment on their blog posts. Have them ‘fish where the fish are’ by taking the conversation to where people are already having it. Want to know what employees at the front line think? Join the conversation in the Newcastle Call Centre’s own social spaces.

By using some of the features your social intranet offers, in the same ways those features are used in external social, you can make your senior leaders appear open, transparent, visible and human, helping to transform your organisation into one which can listen to itself.

How have leaders in your organisation used your social intranet? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Martin White

    A couple of months ago Paul Corney (http://www.knowledgeetal.com) and I gave a presentation at a conference on the impact of national and organisational culture in managing virtual teams and enterprise social networks. Between us we have worked in over 50 countries, including non-holiday destinations such as Iran, Ethiopia and Kuwait. The suggestions made in your post are excellent, but cannot (at least at present) be globally implemented. The Sheik who owned and managed the business for which I was building an intranet for in Kuwait would never be see walking the corridors of the office or responding to blog posts.

    Over the last few years I have been a Visiting Professor at the Information School at the University of Sheffield, and it is probable that the majority of students I work with do not have English as their primary language, and in addition are not EU citizens. I have to be very careful in making sure that I am able to communicate and inspire all my students no matter what their background.

    Recent events suggest that in the years ahead there will be an increasing percentage of the workforce in all EU countries who are not EU nationals.

    As information professionals we should be at the forefront of developing innovative ways to provide cohesion, vision, and mutual understanding in the organisations we work for, and not assume that ideation, gamification and other similar techniques are globally effective, even within increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse organisations in the USA and Europe.

    • Sharon O'Dea

      Thanks for you comment, Martin. I’d like to take up the challenge here. I’ll start by saying that every intranet, and every company culture, is different – what works for one won’t work for another. Being visible on the intranet is not a substitute for being visible in real life, but ESNs enable visibility to scale in ways that are difficult or impossible with a traditional (web 1.0) intranet, and present new possibilities and opportunities for deeper engagement and connection between floor-field staff and leadership.

      But I would disagree with the assertion that these suggestions can’t be globally implemented. I have spent the past year in Asia rolling out a social intranet at my own company, to employees in over 70 countries, with the vast majority based in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Our ESN allows a huge organisation to feel smaller, by connecting people globally and facilitating communication between the previously disconnected – and it has been most enthusiastically adopted in markets outside of Europe. Perhaps in a globalised age where most desk-based workers are used to using tools like Facebook and LinkedIn every day, questions of national culture become less important. The biggest differences I have seen in take up have been around age rather than location, with Millennials (unsurprisingly) being more active.

      That’s not to say that culture isn’t relevant at all – perhaps we could do a follow-up post on that. And important, too, are the preferences of individual leaders, like your Kuwaiti Sheik. But those preferences are not necessarily grounded in nationality, nor are they fixed. In a global organisation there is a need to scale leadership behaviours in order to connect leaders and employees on a global scale; ESN provides a vehicle for that scale.

      My experience so far is that some leaders take to this like a duck to water, and others see the value but need coaching in how to manage that scale – for example with some of the techniques I’ve suggested above – so they can leverage the value ESN can offer in allowing them to connect and collaborate globally.

  2. Martin White

    Thank you for your considered response to a post which was not in any way meant to be critical of your own expertise and experience but to highlight (as you comment) that one approach does not fit everyone.

    There is a very good paper in the Journal of Information Science entitled “Language clustering and knowledge sharing in multilingual organizations: A social perspective on language” by Farhan Ahmad and Gunilla Widen ( Journal of Information Science 2015, Vol. 41(4) 430–443.), who, being Finnish, also inevitably speak Swedish and English to a high standard.

    The authors suggest that language clustering is usually seen as a barrier to knowledge sharing because it promotes segregation. In the knowledge management literature, segregation in the social life of the organization is usually considered harmful for informal knowledge sharing at the individual level. However language clustering may also lead to positive consequences for knowledge sharing in multilingual organizations. Employees associated with the linguistic group high in the organization’s language hierarchy may experience the phenomenon of basking in reflected glory and may become attractive to other linguistic groups for networking.

    In one study quoted in the paper Danish senior managers in a Saudi Arabian subsidiary of a Danish company always used Danish among themselves. As a result, neither Arabic (the commonly spoken language in the organization) nor English (the official corporate language) emerged as the language of power and high organizational status, but instead Danish did – putting it at the top of the linguistic hierarchy in the subsidiary. It was a symbol of top management; speaking Danish meant access to a valuable information network and resources.

    There is a very good chapter on managing global teams in Managing Without Walls by Colleen Garton and Kevin Wygryn (MC Press 2006) which is still relevant today. Erin Myer also makes some excellent points in Navigating the Cultural Minefield in Harvard Business Review, May 2014, pp119 123. Erin is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs 2014).

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