Charlene Li on Open Leadership

Last week I discussed the updates to Groundswell and I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the continuing work of co-author Charlene Li.

Charlene Li

Charlene has been a trusted advisor to marketing leaders for over a decade, helping make sense of search and portals in the early days and then building awareness and understanding of social media.

After co-authoring Groundswell, Charlene followed up with Open Leadership. I asked her some questions about both books.

Q: Business books run the risk of becoming outdated before they get from concept to print. Yet Groundswell has retained its relevance after three years in print. Why?

When Josh and I wrote the book, we designed it around frameworks and stories, which can withstand the test of time. We had a three year time horizon, but for a Forrester analyst, our three years actually stretch out longer than that! But more importantly, while technology and the current business trend of social media is a foundation for Groundswell, it is not the focus. People and the relationships with them are the focus. And you can see it reflected in the very human stories that begin each and every chapter.

Q: What is the best story you’ve heard of Groundswell’s impact on a company or business professional?

Countless organizations have used the book as a foundation for how to use social media. But it’s the personal stories that stay with me. One person recently came up to me and shared that Groundswell was the reason why he changed careers, moved his entire family across the country, and became a top executive at a hot social media start-up. He and many others said that reading Groundswell was like having a new world revealed to them. As an author, there is nothing more rewarding or humbling than knowing that your words had an impact.

Q: You wrote a book after Groundswell, Open Leadership. How do those work together?

While I was speaking about the ideas in Groundswell, people started “getting it”. But they were troubled by the idea of having to give up control and asked, “How open do I need to be in these new relationships?” This is an especially tough problem for people in leadership positions, who are essential in getting support for a relationship-based social media strategy. So often, people start with either Groundswell or Open Leadership depending on what the problem is. Many executives today are pretty well read, so they will skim Groundswell for the frameworks, and then read Open Leadership for the deeper, more relevant questions. My Groundswell co-author Josh Bernoff also wrote a follow-on book, Empowered, as he saw similar questions arise around how to implement the concepts in Groundswell. 

Q: As you say early in Open Leadership, “being open is hard.” What are the best ways to get a company started down an open leadership path?

The most important thing that an open leader does is share, so companies need to create a culture of sharing. Rather than hold information close to the vest, they seek out opportunities to connect with customers, employees, and partners. The key difference is that today, it’s no longer done by walking around or sending personal notes. Social technologies allow you to share at scale. To create a more open culture, Premier Farnell CEO Harriet Green created an internal video sharing site called “OurTube” and encouraged employees to share their best practices. To support this, they placed several thousand handheld video recorders all over the company. 

One of the things I do with top executives is to get them more comfortable with sharing in the channels they already use. If it’s email, that’s fine! They have to master a mindset of openness first, rather than have to do that AND contend with juggling a new technology at the same time. 

Q: Social technologies are being adopted in many workplaces today, while their use in personal lives are impossible to ignore. Are open employees a good thing for companies?

Open employees can be a very good thing, but only if you can structure and guide that use. Being more open isn’t about throwing open the doors — in fact, I believe companies actually have to be very disciplined about defining how open employees can be. At Best Buy, they have the confidence to let 2,500 of their employees answer questions openly on Twitter. That didn’t happen overnight — it required years of the organization inching towards this point, and happened only after repeated smaller successes where employees showed they could be responsible with greater openness. The reality is that your employees can say something every day and any day about your company. And for the most part, they exercise tremendous judgement — and don’t. Imagine the power that could come if you could harness that employee good will and direct it toward a purpose and goal. The impact could be immense. 

Q: What should employees not at the top of the food chain do? Are the principles of OL different when you’re early in your career?

It’s a question of whether and when you see yourself as a leader. I define a leader as a person with followers, and the principles apply no matter where you are on the org chart. More than half the examples in Open Leadership are of people not in top executive positions specifically for that reason. The key difference is that earlier in your career, especially if you are at the front lines, your source of influence and leadership comes from the relationship you develop directly with your followers, not because of a title or designation bestowed upon you by the organization. Those followers may be inside your company or outside of it. 

For example, Salesforce.com recognized the top users of it’s internal social sharing tool, Chatter, giving them the name “Chatterati”. CEO Marc Benioff brought the Chatterati to his leadership offsite, along with 300 of the top executives of the company because he recognized that the Chatterati had influence and power within Salesforce. In fact, he saw them as a key way for the company to move quickly by breaking down hierarchies and silos. 

Q: Groundswell, then Open Leadership. Any hints on what’s next?

My favorite chapter in Open Leadership is Chapter 9 which discusses how organizations deal with Failure. As we work deeply with organizations at Altimeter Group, I see a lack of resilience in companies ability to incorporating new, disruptive technologies. It’s one of the reasons I’m developing a framework to assess new technologies. The goal: to help companies figure out which technologies they should move quickly to adopt — and which ones they can safely ignore. My hypothesis is that disruptive technologies are like the canary in the coal mine — if your organization can be resilient in the face of technologies that you can see coming from far away, you’ll have a better ability to respond quickly to other disruptive threats such as economic downturns. 

Many thanks to Charlene for sharing!


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