(R)evolution Episode 4: Charlene Li on Open Leadership

Welcome to the fourth episode of (R)evolution, a new series that connects you to the people, trends, and ideas defining the future of business, marketing, and media. My guest in episode 4 is Charline Li, founding partner of Altimeter Group, author of the new book, Open Leadership and also my dear friend.

The premise of “open leadership” sets the stage for executives to embrace social technology to transform the way they lead. In our discussion, we also review how social behavior and activity demand that leaders not only embrace open leadership, but also open engagement.

The future of business requires the embodiment of a culture that will inspire communities and also adapt to them to earn greater relevance and prominence over time.  Companies that aspire to a mission or higher purpose, something bigger than the brand, something bigger than profitability, can and will excel. Social consumers don’t simply follow businesses because they show up on Facebook, Twitter or any other social network. They do so because their attention, trust and loyalty is earned in real time and over time.

As Charlene explains, it takes both evolution and revolution to define new leadership and inspire existing in new markets in the era of social business.

“You give up control in order to get more power.”
- Charlene Li

Transcript

(R)evolution with Brian Solis and Charlene Li

Brian: Hello everyone. I am your host, Brian Solis. Welcome to another episode of (R) evolution. I am excited and extremely pleased to have with us a very special guest and also someone who I get to call a good friend, Charlene Li, who is the author of the best selling new book, Open Leadership. She was also the co-author of another best seller, Groundswell, and today we are going to talk a little bit about what it takes to be an open leader in this era of social media and social technology.

I have this saying that I often share with executives that if a conversation takes place online and you are not there to hear it, did it really happen? And as we look at words that are becoming pervasive in the social era, such as transparency and authenticity and openness, we have to look at the greater meaning of not just these words or these buzz words, but actually what it takes to become an open leader. So the name of the show is (R)evolution with an emphasis on both on Revolution and Evolution, and with that I would like to welcome officially, Charlene, to the show. Thank you very much for being on.

Charlene: Thank you very much for having me.

Brian: The transformation of leadership is no small undertaking. And, I wonder in your experience if you see it to be more of a revolution or an evolution in order to at least get the process moving in the right direction?

Charlene: Well, I think, first of all, by nature leadership doesn’t go in fits and starts. It is something you evolve and move into, but I do fundamentally believe it is an evolution of how you get to that point. Especially being a leader in the social media space. It is so different, and requires that leaders to think in a completely different way. One where they are going to open up and share information, decision-making, where everything, every single fiber in their body says control it; command it. That is what it means to be a leader; be in charge. And yet, in this new era, I think it is much more about what you can enable and bring in, and bringing people together by giving up that control and in that process you actually get more power. But the revolution part is very interesting. I think most leaders won’t get to that point. They will not move into that era, because it is so difficult for them to do that. Therefore, it takes a revolution. It takes a breaking point where they realize they cannot survive anymore, even. They have to be forced and pushed into that new space. Dragged, kicking and screaming, oftentimes, as you have probably seen, and usually, unfortunately, it comes to this cataclysmic external forces, a really bad situations that makes them sit up and realize – I have to do things differently.

Brian: I like to call this the ah-ha versus the oh-oh moment where very few leaders look at that ah-ha with the opportunity that is present before them before they react to the oh-oh moment where we see something like the BP oil spill account on Twitter, where suddenly BP had to start to consider a social presence. Or with the unfortunate videos that hit YouTube for Domino’s, where suddenly Domino’s needed to now have a social strategy. But we are looking at decades of closed, top down leadership where even engagement was outsourced to outside agencies, or to overseas agencies. What is it that you are seeing in terms of the individual within the organization? Is it really the leader who says we need to embrace social? Or is it a champion or a catalyst internally that says let’s think about this differently and here’s why?

Charlene: It is all of those. I have talked to a lot of these social media strategists, the sort of realists, optimists, is what I call them. Somewhere in the middle of the organization, or sometimes in the front lines. And they are the ones who oftentimes are that catalyst, who live in that space. But I have met quite a few CEOs also who get that ah-ha moment, and they lead; they lead absolutely strongly from the top of the organization. Howard Shultz at Starbucks, Chris Conde at Sungard Financial Services Retail, at the top of the game. And what is interesting is they are leading at the very top. They have front line people who are right behind them and then you come into this thing called middle management, and they are incredibly threatened, because they hang onto the hierarchy that closed-ness actually creates, information sharing up and down stovepipes. Authority inside decision-making. And so when the CEO is connecting with the front lines through these informal channels, guess what happens? Chaos. All this angst comes up, and I think we are going through that period now where it is not so much about enterprise 2.0, as it is about leadership 2.0. What does it mean to be a leader when you don’t have control anymore?

Brian: That is a fantastic question, because we look at what is going to put the leader in open leadership, and we see over the years different types, I don’t want to say leaders, because that could be questioned, but we will just say different types of CXOs. And those could be either risk taking or risk adverse. And I would imagine that with social there has to be a common trait in terms of one willing to take risks. But I also see push back in the sense of how big is social, really? And when we look at the idea of that if a conversation takes place online idea, how big does it have to be for them to pay attention or to commit resources, to commit teams, to commit budget for them to actually go down this path?

Charlene: I don’t think it has to be that big. In fact, it is huge, because if you take away the social technology part of it, take away all the things around Twitter and Facebook, and sit down with the executive and say, how important are relationships to your business? And they will say absolutely central. It is the most important thing. Business is all about relationships. And you go, what relationships? Can you define them? What kind of relationships do you want with your employees and with your customers and they describe that sometimes in great detail. And then you show them this is how social can enable that. And it is in the context of regular every day doing business that you have to explain social technologies. Because if you try to bring leaders who have no idea what this new world looks like, kicking and dragging and screaming into it, they won’t understand it. But if you can go into their world, and live and understand what their most important goals are, and most leaders only focus on maybe three or five goals, period.

Brian: When you are dealing with the executive management level, the question that they have is whether or not these are the playgrounds of the younger generations. Because many of them aren’t necessarily on Facebook or Twitter as individuals. And so what ends up happening a lot of times is that they put certain people on the front lines, just because they understand how to use these social technologies. Not because they feel that it is the right thing to do, and definitely not with a direct adverse strategy that is going to help business outcomes. But I wonder at some point we have to figure out a way to change not just the operation of this, and definitely not just the leadership, but also start to take a crack at shaping or shifting the culture of the organization to be more open, and it definitely takes a leader, but at the same time do you see that there is a chance for outside influences, within the organization, for example, to help change or transform or expedite the need for change of the culture within?

Charlene: So, I think, again, externally, the group that is going to cause the greatest amount of change are the customers. The customers being out there, if you are listening to them at all, they are saying, knock, knock, knock. I am here on Twitter. Are you listening to me? I am here on Facebook. B2B companies say, oh, I don’t need to be on Facebook. Well, we just do a quick search for their product or name and services and lo and behold they are on Facebook. So, where are you? Do you want to be part of that conversation that people are having or not? You can chose still, but they are there. So I go back to what are the places organizations, when you have a look at, what are their external forces? This is, again, the most important one, the one that pays the bills, is your customers.

Brian: And do you believe that there are others, maybe the champion within, who is also maybe someone who has the ear of the CEO. Is this book for them as well?

Charlene: I think the book is for multiple people. There are, first of all, the CEOs, the obvious, the executives, and leaders inside the organization. But is also for those people who are trying to influence them, and they, themselves are trying to figure out how do I be a more effective leader. I talk about four different archetypes of leaders, and one of them is the realist/optimist person who is really the change agent. But I also have one of my favorite people, the worried skeptic. This person is just worried to death about what is going to go wrong. How do you get this person to feel comfortable? And actually be a leader in their own right, because they actually are very right in being worried about things. How do you leverage that and how do you work with the other archetypes to support that person, to feel comfortable with this?

Brian: And one of the things that I have seen as well is this idea of experimentation or pilot programs, not just for leadership, but also with social technology and one might experiment outside of just the need to realize that there is an opportunity to change the leadership, but mostly because this is a have to, because competitors are on Facebook and Twitter or they are reading about it in Ad Age or Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, and so in those cases where it begins, let’s just say from the bottom up, and definitely not a top down strategy, what is the switch when the executive role realizes that there is a bigger opportunity here to socialize the business?

Charlene: So I think all of these organic kind of initiatives, the Twitter here and a little bit of YouTube there, and people just sort of doing it, because they can get away with it, I guess, is the way I think about it. Usually at some point there is a conflict internally. Or they are trying to go after the same customer and fighting over the YouTube channel, for example. But somebody in the corporation says, stop it. This is irrational. We have sixteen different brands on Facebook and one knows which is the real us. Or, the CEO goes, all right, which of these things are us? Or what does it look like? Who are we as a brand and what kind of relationship do you want. Usually it grows up and grows up and at some point everyone blows it up and reforms it again into something more rational. That is exactly what happened with HP. They had all these great initiatives, very good homegrown initiatives, but it wasn’t coordinated. So they did this thing called Operation Clean Sheet. They basically started from scratch saying what is it we want? And did that at the corporate level and put enough structure in there. Again, interesting thing, they put structure around being open, but enough structure so that everyone had the freedom to do what they needed and wanted to. But now it is consistent and instead of having fifty-eight different Facebook pages, they have something like nine. It is rational; it is in line with their strategic goals and business units and different areas. And they have all the same branding and clean look around things. And they have tremendous freedom within those templates to make it work. They created all these sandboxes and everyone is in agreement about it.

Brian: I believe that is actually a lot of what the future of social business looks like, and I hope that this is what we see sooner than later. Because there has to be structure to this. In fact, at some point, we are going to have to embrace the groundswell and then play a top down strategy and leadership program so that this is not just driving the team, as well as the innovation behind what the team is capable of, but also by maybe not controlling, but definitely leading the marketplace. And I think that is what individuals are looking for. They are looking to be heard; they are looking for resolution. They are looking to be part of the process, but they are also looking to have something to believe in. And if organizations aren’t embracing this opportunity to demonstrate leadership, I believe that someone else will. And so with that, I would love Charlene for you to give us a few parting words or bits of advice for those watching.

Charlene: I think most importantly than anything else is to redefine what leadership means. It is no longer about controlling resources, or controlling people. It is about inspiring people, and if you think about the best leaders, the people you will follow to the ends of the earth, they didn’t command and control you. They inspired you towards a common goal. And the tools that leaders have to use today are tremendous. You don’t have to just be able to sit next to somebody to inspire them. You can inspire them with your words, with your image. And to be able to use these tools is something that leaders have to get good at. Be really good and confident and excel at this art of sharing.

Brian: And that is Open Leadership, and that is what it is going to take to win. Not just in business, but just in general. And this is what it is going to take to earn the relationships of your customers, your prospects and the individuals that connect them. Open Leadership to me is exactly what Charlene said. It is about inspiring people and if you can’t inspire people, then how can you possibly expect that they can follow you to wherever it is that you are going? How can you possibly expect that they will support you in our endeavors? Leadership, inspiration, empathy. These are all emotional ties, and that is what we find that really powers and connects social media is the idea of emotion, the idea of self expression, the idea of being part of a very personal community or network where individuals are connected around themes and interests and passions. And you have to earn your way into that. So this is your moment to define who you want to be today and tomorrow.

Open Leadership is available at bookstores everywhere…

Credits:

Andrew Landini, Producer
Adam Eckenfelder, Audio Tech/Re-Recording Mixing
Location: KickLabs San Francisco

Past Episodes:

Episode One: Empowered with Josh Bernoff
Episode Two: Silicon Valley vs. The World with Sarah Lacy
Episode Three: Rick Bakas of St. Supery Winery on Social Media, Wine and Community


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Please consider reading, Engage!: It will help you find answers to your questions…


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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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