Sree Sreenivasan recently made headlines for the audacious way he communicated about his transition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Instead of withdrawing from the world, he went in the opposite direction. He kindly agreed to speak with us and share some valuable advice on job networking and social media use.
Sree is now Chief Digital Officer of New York City. Just two of his recent awards are Fast Company Magazine’s Most Creative People of the Year and the Columbia University School of Journalism Alumni Award. His social networking accounts are wildly popular.
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Interview with Sree Sreenivasan
I am living proof that social media can change your life.
Q: First, walk us through what happened. Is it accurate to say you got laid off but did not react the way people normally do?
Sree Sreenivasan: Just to back up a bit, I had a job I absolutely loved. For 20 years, I was a professor at Columbia Journalism School and the first Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University. I loved that job and gave it up—including free tuition for my kids and half tuition off anywhere in the world in pre-tax dollars—to go work at the Met: another job I loved. For three years, I loved every minute at the Met. I thought I had the greatest job in the world.
Suddenly, one day I was brought in and told that I was leaving the Met. That was a great shock. Mike Tyson has a great line. He says, “everybody has a plan until they are punched in the face.” That is basically what happened to me. I had a plan to keep doing everything I was doing until I was punched in the face.
My first instinct was in fact to burrow and try to get a job. It is not so easy to get a job in the summer at a higher level but I tried. Suddenly, I found out that the announcement was going to be made. I had no choice but to tell the world that I lost my job and that I was looking for help.
…the world gave me an incredible digital hug.
I could have pretended that this was my own idea and I wanted to spend more time with the kids. You know how people, when they resign, announce they are doing it so they can spend more time with their family. I’ve always wanted to have someone interview the family and have the kids say, “no thanks!” and the wife, “no way!”
Anyway, I was really nervous about doing this but the world gave me an incredible digital hug. I gave people a form to fill in. 1,300 people filled in the form telling me some good things, some good advice, some bad advice, some curious stuff. It was really meaningful to me and I was so moved by the whole outpouring.
Q: You have given the advice elsewhere that you really should start networking when things are going well. I think you even said that “desperation does not look good on LinkedIn.”
Sree Sreenivasan: Absolutely. I would urge everybody reading today—even if nothing else comes out from this—to please send a text, send a Facebook note, send an email, a LinkedIn message to someone who is a mentor-type person to you. Imagine, if you get laid off tomorrow, who you’ll be calling in desperation. Why not reach out to them today when you don’t need them for anything so that they know that you are not reaching out because you want something. As someone who has dealt with a lot of students and other individuals over the years, I typically hear from people only when they desperately want something. While there is nothing wrong with that, it is not a way to create a long-term, meaningful relationship.
Send a note to someone who is a mentor-type person to you.
Q: Do you feel from working at a major arts organization that people are already pretty good at this, so-so, just about average…?
Sree Sreenivasan: I think most people in most organizations are terrible at networking for themselves. They don’t look out for themselves. They don’t use LinkedIn because they think that it is a job hunting tool, which it is, although it is really a career management tool. We all need to get better at LinkedIn. I want every freshman in high school to have a LinkedIn account and start building that up for years and years to come.
One of the things I’ve learned is that loyalty in companies only goes in one direction: from employee to employer. You have to look out for yourself. Do it in a way that is respectful and makes sense for you so that people want to hire you. Often, when people lose their jobs they think, “maybe I’ll sue the employer.” I tell people that if they sue, they better win and never have to work again because their next employer is going to think, “I know how this is going to go, you’re going to sue me one day.”
Considering all of this, my own experience is that the way I handle this has to be not just respectful to the Met because the Met deserves so much respect but because I could’ve ended up really badly and many people could’ve said, “I’m not going to hire you.” It was a very interesting experience.
What’s common sense in real life is common sense on social media.
Q: I imagine you’ve developed these super-power networking skills over your entire career. How did you get started? I imagine you were not always a Chief Digital Officer. Perhaps you even transitioned from journalist type roles to public relations type roles. Were these transitions always serendipitous or were they really purposeful?
Sree Sreenivasan: I would say that my roles have been evolving over time and I certainly didn’t always have a network. But I recently have been writing up my social media tips using #learnsocmedia. We have about 160 tips up there now and the number 1 tip is, “what’s common sense in real life is common sense on social media.”
Therefore, it is all about making connections in real life, being interesting in real life, treating people well in real life. This will create a real life network and you then build a digital network on top of that.
Q: How do you balance the professional feel versus the more personal feel of your social media presence? You know how some people talk about their dog. I know some people feel concerned that being too personal will reflect poorly on them or their organization.
Sree Sreenivasan: I spend three to six minutes on every tweet I write because I think how everything I’m posting reflects on me, reflects on my family, reflects on my boss, reflects on my boss’ boss. So, I take everything very seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a personality, you can’t have fun. If you go online and visit me on Twitter, you’ll see I occasionally post about my dog. We even have a hashtag, she’s a beagle so we call her #sreegle. People follow her on occasion.
The point is that the goal is making it interesting, making it compelling, looking at it from the point of view of your audience. They will occasionally tolerate personal stuff mixed in. If the general tenor of your tweets and posts is being helpful, being useful, and being informative, people will follow you.
Q: I noticed that one of your Facebook pages (fb.com/sreetips) gives social media and other advice to journalists. These relationships can be very useful in your line of work. Do you think this approach can be replicated by others?
Sree Sreenivasan: I think everybody has to find their own way in the digital world. Don’t copy anybody else. Borrow the best elements of multiple people and see what makes sense. I tell people: “Be a student of your own social media. Try new things. When you post something, what is the effect? Try something different.” I’m learning how to use Facebook Live and Periscope. I’ve done over 150 of them and each one has been an experiment. I’ve learned something in each session about what’s working and what’s not.
Q: The example comes to mind of a role that is not necessarily high visibility, like a ticket sales manager for an arts organization. Their challenge might be to learn from people like you at the forefront of social media and do something that still makes sense for them and can help them advance their career goals.
Sree Sreenivasan: I would say that part of what organizations should do is encourage all their members to participate. They should realize that all its members have a role in the success of the organization and social media is a part of that success. You can’t just depend on the social media team to do social media. At the Met, one of the best social media accounts is from one of our 600 security guards. She has an incredible Instagram feed. Her handle is @anat_919 and she’s incredible. I can assure you that the entire organization has a role to play.
Q: You say you are a technology evangelist AND a skeptic. Why a skeptic?
Sree Sreenivasan: It is very easy to be an evangelist. Everybody thinks that everything is great online. Others think that everything online is terrible. I think that to balance it all out, you need to be both. Ask yourself, “which of the digital tools will help me and my organization?” Also figure out which tools to ditch or not trust. You have to know the field and have a good ear for this. That is why you have to be an evangelist and a skeptic.
Be a student of your own social media.
Q: In your new role as Chief Digital Officer for New York City, what will a typical day look like? Will there even be a typical day?
Sree Sreenivasan: I don’t start for several months, but I hope to have an office—so to speak—in every borough of New York, helping all the folks who want to do digital in all five boroughs. Go out and listen. I consider my role as that of a Chief Listening Officer and I’m very excited about the possibilities.
Q: Many important people and media personalities follow you on social media. How often (other than the subject of our interview!) does this online social networking turn into offline meetings or opportunities?
Sree Sreenivasan: I think that is exactly what we were trying to do in the art world. In the art world it is about connecting the digital and the physical, the online and the offline. Social media in your personal use should have the same impact. Almost everything I have in my life comes from giving away things digitally. This makes people think, “if that’s the digital version, maybe the in-person version will be even better.” I am living proof that social media can change your life.
Thank you so much to digital media master Sree Sreenivasan for speaking with ArtsTie.com while on his daily 10 mile walk through New York City. It’s been an honor!