Leadership Lessons of YouTube

Many politicians have embraced online video as a means to connect with voters and constituents. Should CEOs follow suit?

Posted on Letter from London: May 21, 2008 9:04 AM

On Monday morning, two items on BBC radio got me thinking. The first was the news that Gordon Brown, our beleaguered prime minister, has launched a website where the public can put questions to him via YouTube. Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Mr Brown has realised it was time to go interactive.

"I am here to answer your questions," he says in his video clip. "Politicians get the chance in Prime Minister's Questions [a weekly half-hour slot where MPs can grill the PM]. I think it's time the public had a chance." It's not instant—we have to submit our questions by 21 June and he will answer the most popular "at some point soon". But it was appreciated—a few hours after the announcement, the site had attracted thousands of subscribers.

For a heavyweight politician such as Brown this is a big move, prompted, no doubt by David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, who branded Brown "an analogue leader in a digital age". Cameron, 41, set up his own site two years ago, offering a view of his home life that included a webcast of his family eating breakfast. This has turned out to be a powerful marketing tool for him and his party as his popularity ratings have steadily risen.

The next item was an interview with Jean-Pierre Garnier, the outgoing CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. Garnier, 60, has been a controversial figure during his eight-years leading the drugs manufacturer. Five years ago, shareholders voted against a pay package that would have allowed him to walk away with $36 million if he lost his job. He also drew fire for refusing to charge lower prices for HIV medicine in Africa and branding animal rights activists 'despicable cowards'. Yet in the last couple of years he has managed to reverse his reputation and become one of Britain's most respected businessmen.

On Monday, though, he was in the hot seat again. Having agreed to discuss GSK's bird-flu vaccine for humans, Garnier instead found himself ambushed by questions about Seroxat, the company's anti-depressant that has been linked to suicide impulses in young people. When asked whether GSK was prepared to make public all information about the potential dangers of the drug, Garnier became increasingly annoyed. The next question, whether he would leave a company that will "be honest" about the safety of its drugs, caused him to end the interview and walk out of the studio. "I am not interested in this question…" he said. "I wish you the best. Goodbye".

We shall see whether Brown masters YouTube and attracts a new generation of Labour party supporters. But for Garnier, the evidence is clear: he is stuck in analogue mode. Unable to engage with his interviewer or flex his style, he revealed himself as a leader who is aloof, fixed and authoritarian. It's difficult to imagine him engaging in a Q&A on YouTube-style with his employees or shareholders.

I'm pleased our politicians are using new media channels to connect with voters. That's what we—especially the younger generation—expect. But are CEOs and business leaders up to speed yet? Does your CEO or boss communicate with you through a YouTube channel? Is he or she open to direct questions from you or the shareholders? If not, why not?

Or are you a leader who is considering engaging this way? What are the benefits? What are the problems? Are you aware of any leaders who are using this media in their companies? Does it work? Do you see any results in the workplace?

Let's also hear some of the questions you'd like to ask if your CEO or boss gave you the opportunity to grill them online.

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