Episode 94: Charlene Li
Bernie: Hey there, welcome to episode 94 of the Social Business Engine Podcast, the podcast where I invite thought leaders from all industries to share their expertise on social media technology and best practices across the enterprise. I’m Bernie Borges from Find and Convert and your host of the Social Business Engine podcast.
On today’s episode, I’m excited to bring you my conversation with Charlene Li. Charlene is recognized around the world as one of the foremost experts on social media and technologies, and a consultant and independent thought leader on strategy, leadership, social technologies, interactive media, and marketing.
Charlene is the founder and CEO of Altimeter Group and the author of the New York Times bestseller, Open Leadership. She is also the co-author of the critically acclaimed, best-selling book Groundswell, which was named one the best business books in 2008. Her latest book titled, The Engaged Leader was published in March 2015. That’s what we’re going to discuss on this episode. We are going to explore key takeaways from her latest book the Engaged Leader to provide insights and inspiration for you and the leaders in your organization.
This episode is in cooperation with IBM. We’ve published Social Business Journal Volume 6: Inclusive Design in a Cognitive Era. Reinventing Enterprise Email to Make Workplaces More Productive, Efficient, and Humane. This journal is available as an ungated download on our show notes page for this episode and also at the journal’s page at our website at socialbusinessengine.com. Remember, it’s ungated so there’s no form to fill out.
Before I segue to my interview with Charlene, I want to point out that I didn’t use my regular podcast microphone for this recording. You’ll notice that my audio sounds a little different, and I hope that you’re okay with that. Lets get to my interview with Charlene Li, CEO of Altimeter Group and the author of the Engaged Leader.
Charlene, welcome to the Social Business Engine podcast.
Charlene: It’s great to be here Bernie.
Bernie: Thank you. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, Charlene. As you know from our previous conversation, I’ve already told you that I’ve read your books, Groundswell and Open Leadership, and Charlene, while they were both relevant and both compelling, not to mention enjoyable, I have to tell you The Engaged Leader really hits home for me for so many reasons. Mostly because it’s so current for me. Running a B2B digital marketing agency, I come across leaders who run the spectrum of engaged to not engaged. I would like to hear from your perspective because you encounter so many brands across so many industries. I’d like to hear from you first and foremost, why did you write this book, The Engaged Leader?
Charlene: It’s precisely what you talked about. I kept running across leaders who kept saying, “Okay, I know I need to be a social business. I know I should have an open organization, but that’s everybody else’s job. That’s not for me to do. Is it? Does it apply to me too?” What has happened now is they very much feel like they need to personally do this. Their credibility is on the line. How can they ask the rest of their organization to be digital, to be engaged in this new era when they themselves can’t do it? This has become a leadership issue. They would say, “How do I do this?” I realized I had some methodologies, and I wanted to put it out there so that leaders could use it.
Bernie: Interesting. Okay, makes complete sense.
The way that you broke your book out, you’ve got four pivotal elements of the engaged leader. What I’d like to do, Charlene is I’d like to walk through each of them and let’s start with the first one that you define as listen at scale. What’s that about?
Charlene: Sure. The root of all of these concepts is that as a leader you are trying to get things done. You’re not going to want to do any of these things just because it’s the right thing to do. You do it because you have very clear objectives as a leader and for your organization. Listening is at the core of any good leader. You listen to what your customers are saying, what your employees, your partners, your ecosystem are saying. The difference now is in the digital era you can listen in such a different way. You can listen, you can hear directly what customers are saying. You can hear what employees are saying, especially because of these digital channels. They just didn’t exist five years ago. It’s a great new opportunity to listen. I say, “You listen not with your ears, but with your eyes.” You can read a lot faster than people can speak to you. You can quickly scan, absorb a landscape of things. The key is to listen very strategically so that you can scale that listening.
The leaders who do this best build it into their daily lives. They find those interstitial moments to listen to the things that are most important to them so that they can make better decisions. It’s not listen to everything, but listen to the right people at scale.
Bernie: I want to talk a little bit more about the “at scale” part. Are you referring to the technology that enables listening to a current scale? Is that a big part of what you mean by that?
Charlene: I think it is. In particular, the scale part is because you can listen to so many people and so many things. The trick, and then that’s the science, you can do that, the art of it though is listening to the right people. That’s the difference. This can be so overwhelming for so many leaders. They’re like, “It’s too much. It’s too much information out there.” What you need to do is go back to your leadership goals and say, “Who should I listen to? Who are the most important people I need to listen to, whether in the industry or whatever, in order for me to accomplish my goals?” It starts with the goals. It’s very purposeful.
Bernie: Okay. That’s listening at scale. The next element that you talk about is share to shape and I really like this because it’s not just sharing, which those of us that have been engaged in social for some number of years, as you know Charlene, we share. You frame this up as share to shape. Want to talk about that?
Charlene: Sharing to shape is sharing with a purpose. I get asked by leaders often, “What do I share about? People don’t really want to hear about my lunch, right?” I’m like, “You’re absolutely right. They do not want to hear about your lunch. They want to hear what you talked about over the lunch.” As a leader, you’re sharing with a purpose and the purpose is to shape the relationship you have with your followers. It is something that you grow over time, you develop over time with them.
My best example of this is Rosemary Turner. She is a district manager at UPS. She manages seventeen thousand people in Northern California. That’s like a small city, basically. What she started realizing was that people were using Twitter to communicate with each other. These are people in the warehouse, in the trucks. Her goal was to connect with people on a more one-to-one basis so that they would feel comfortable knocking on her door physically or virtually and say, “Rosemary, I’ve got something I’ve got to talk to you about.” How do you break down that distance? She started using Twitter to engage with people, post up pictures, communicate with them. People got to know her and one day, sure enough, a young driver knocked on her door and goes, “Rosemary I need to talk to you about something.” She recognized him from the Twitter conversations that she’d been having back and forth, the banter going back and forth. She was thrilled.
She’s not somebody who is comfortable in the digital space. As she would put it, “I’m not a spring chicken.” She goes, “I started calling it ‘The Twitter’.” She’s one of those people who are not digital natives. What she is, is she’s a leader. She knew what she wanted to accomplish and she found a way to share, and again, to shape that relationship and to bring out a new type of engagement that wasn’t possible before.
Bernie: Charlene, I remember that story in your book. I remember the whole point you just made about how she is not a digital native and it really forced her to get outside her comfort zone. Do you see that as being more the norm than the exception, really requiring leaders to get outside their comfort zone to become engaged?
Charlene: I think the comfort zone is more about, “I just don’t know how to use this technology. It’s really hard,” and they realize, “Oh this is actually really pretty straight forward.” What she felt very comfortable doing was the engaging part once she knew how to use the technology, very comfortable with it. In doing more research into the space, though. I realized that leaders who are naturally engaged in real life, in other channels, have a much easier time moving into the digital space and being engaged. People who have a really hard time are the ones who frankly aren’t engaged. They don’t listen. They don’t share. They don’t put themselves out there. They think of a much more traditional, hierarchical, be spoken to rather than speak with, model of leadership. There’s a level of engagement of an engaged leader that transfers really well from the traditional notions of leadership into the digital, more modern era of engagement.
Bernie: I have to ask you then, across enterprises, across the world you see it all, there are leaders that are thirty, there are leaders that are forty and there are leaders that are fifty and there are leaders that are sixty. I’m really being direct. Is age a factor?
Charlene: I think age is a factor in two ways. First of all, if you’re older you’re not as exposed, this is not the natural way – period – in the way that you develop relationships. The notion of developing relationships in this type of engagement and these channels may not be the most natural thing. That said, my book is filled with leaders in their fifties, sixties, in some cases eighties with the case of Marriott, that are very comfortable in this medium. Bill Marriott doesn’t even know how to type and he blogs every week. Technology is not holding him back. This is not a generational issue other than the technology.
I also think it works in a different way. The older leaders know how to lead. They just don’t know how to use it in these channels. What I found is a very different issue with leaders in their thirties, they don’t know how to lead. They may know how to use these technologies, but not as a leadership medium. They are just as lost as these older executives in terms of, “How do I use it at work?” They use it all the time for personal reasons, to get connected on LinkedIn. Ask them to lead their employees, lead a team, lead a department, lead a company and they’re just as frozen in the headlights.
Bernie: Interesting. Interesting observation. The third element is engage to transform. Not just engage, you just made a comment a moment ago about how younger leaders who, perhaps, don’t know how to lead might engage in ways that are just social, but the third element in your book is engage to transform. What’s that about?
Charlene: You can listen, you can share, but it’s only when you actually engage, talk to people, develop a relationship with people that you transform that relationship. What I mean by transformation is a transformation in the relationship between the leader and the follower, but also in the people. I think the best leaders will say, “Leading actually changes you.” When you’re led by an inspired, engaged leader it also changes you, both interactions. The transformation is on multiple dimensions. The transformation comes when that relationship deepens. It gets broader. It gets more understood. In the end, what every leader hopes is that “I can lead and my people who are following me will follow.” Not in a passive way, but in an engaged and a thoughtful way.
I oftentimes say that employee engagement is at its all-time low. It just has not moved. I don’t know if leaders really want engaged employees because engaged employees are kind of a pain. They talk back at you. They question you. They say, “What’s the purpose behind this? What’s the meaning? I don’t get it. I think there’s a better way to do this.” You just want them to shut up and go do their jobs. “I just want you to go do the job already.” Engagement is time-consuming. It is sometimes painful. Really defining what engagement means in the relationship is the key thing. What I find where people are truly engaged is trying to discover where that new relationship is going to be. Finding that right relationship and in many ways working together as leaders and followers to transform that relationship.
Bernie: That leads right into your fourth element, transform to organize. Even if I wasn’t looking at it as the outline, which I am, that’s where my head would go just from this conversation, Charlene because if it’s painful for a leader to engage in a transformational way, then in order for that to be productive they’ve got to do it in a way that’s going to be productive and organized. I don’t want to steal your thunder. I’m sure I couldn’t anyway. Why don’t you explain that fourth element, transform to organize?
Charlene: Really thinking about that transformation of leadership and the impact of a transformed leader, an engaged leader has on the organization, you see some extraordinary things happen. One of my favorite ones is Jeffrey Immelt, which I talk about in the book, the CEO of GE. Back in 2010, I was meeting with him and a group of women that were up and coming leaders. I was there to speak with a woman about digital engagement. I turned to Jeffrey and I went, “Wait a minute you’re not engaged. What about you?” I put him on the hot seat and he went, “Uh, that’s Beth Comstock’s job. That’s my CMO’s job.” Then he immediately realized, “Oh, that’s so lame. That’s just lame.”
He got his act together and in the process he discovered what engagement could do not only for him but for the rest of the organization. For the past five years, he and Beth have been actively working with leadership throughout the organization to help them understand, “What does it mean to be engaged as leaders and as an organization, with each other and with their customers?” It has taken on this whole entire dimension larger than just the individuals themselves. It’s thinking about engagement as a whole. That is transforming GE from the inside out.
Bernie: Charlene, I don’t mean to take a tangent here, but I’m going to ask this question at the risk of taking a tangent. Is there any coincidence that you had that exchange with Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE, and when you look at their website and their homepage today, in early 2016, their messaging says, “We are transforming GE into the world’s premier digital industrial company using our scale and diversity to drive outcomes for customers.”
Charlene: They were already moving in that direction when I met with him back in 2010. It’s led by two extraordinary people, Beth Comstock and Jeffrey Immelt. I think I played a small part in it, but I was invited because they realized they needed to do this. That’s the key thing. Digital isn’t something that one other department does, or a special person does. It’s something that everybody does, everybody. They’re an industrial manufacturing company, not your normal prospect. You would think, “Of course, media company, maybe a retailer, but a manufacturing industrial company being digital?” Absolutely. These are complex machines that require diagnostics, so many aspects of ‘being digital.’ They work through a huge supply chain and ecosystem that may be connected to each other digitally. Digital is the way that you run companies and engage with your employees in a global organization. They have to get good at this.
Bernie: You took the words right out of my proverbial mouth, Charlene. On the whole, “Digital isn’t what one person or department does.” I’ve said that a few times myself. Thank you for reinforcing it.
Charlene, what I’d like to do now before I ask you my final one thing question, I would like to do what has become customary here on the Social Business Engine Podcast. That is where I share my note-taking skills. No, not really. What I do is share a summary of what we just discussed for my listeners and then ask if I missed anything, or if there’s anything that you’d like to add, or just weave it right into my one thing question. That’s what I’m going to ask you at the end of my summary. What’s one thing that you’d like to leave my listeners with? Let me get to my summary first. We started with your response to my question, Charlene of, “Why did you write this book the Engaged Leader?” You said that it’s really about a credibility issue, that leaders have begun to understand that they need to be leading in this digital age in order to be credible, and they recognize that they’re not.
There are four elements that you’ve outlined in your book. The first one is to listen at scale. You mentioned that leadership is about getting things done and listening is an important part of being a leader. Listening at scale is about listening strategically, building it into their daily lives and to also understand the difference between the art of listening, listening to the right people, and the science of listening which is leveraging social technology in order to be able to listen at scale.
The second element in being an engaged leader is to share to shape. That’s about sharing with a purpose. It’s not about a leader sharing what they had for lunch, but what they talked about over lunch. I love that. That might make its way into a tweet. You shared a couple of examples. One of my favorite from your book is Rosemary Turner from UPS, how she manages seventeen thousand people and she is sharing to shape in order to establish an open door policy with her staff. She admits that she’s not a digital native, so perhaps it was the technology she had to get comfortable with. She was very comfortable with the engagement once she got comfortable with the technology. She’s been having some real success in establishing that culture of being open.
You talked about how leaders who are naturally engaged in their style in real life, they can make the digital transition as opposed to leaders that are not engaged are going to have a difficult time being engaged digitally.
We talked about age. I like the fact that you mentioned it’s not a factor. Older leaders know how to lead, just not in digital channels. That’s a learning curve for them to understand how to embrace digital channels form an engagement standpoint. You point out that in some cases younger leaders don’t know how to lead. It’s not about them knowing how to use social and digital because most of them do, it’s about them really knowing how to lead.
The third element is engage to transform. This is all about being transformational as the leader is important for the leader to transform themselves, not just the employees. You mentioned that employee engagement is at an all-time low and that some leaders may not even want them to engage because it can be painful. It’s difficult to manager that relationship when there’s a lot more engagement involved. Engaging to transform is an important element albeit perhaps a challenging one.
The fourth element is transform to organize. You use the example of Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of this little company called GE, and this exchange that you had with him back in 2010. I vividly remember that from the book, Charlene, and how when you asked him, “Why aren’t you engaged?” He said, “That’s the CMO’s jobs.” I love how you just embellished here on your encounter with him and how he realized, “Well, maybe that’s lame. Maybe I should be engaged.” He discovered what engagement really can look like. You describe in the book how he is actively engaged, that he uses Twitter himself. It’s a great example of a CEO of a very, very large brand who is actively engaging, actively using social and digital channels to engage. I love that example. I also love how you mention that digital isn’t what one person or one department does. Everyone does it. We can wrap my summary on that point.
I will ask you first, did I leave anything out that you’d like to come back to and/or what is the one thing that you would like to leave my listeners with as an actionable takeaway from our conversation?
Charlene: I think that was a great summary. I’m like, “Oh, I said that?” I’m taking notes on myself. The one actionable thing I would say, I’m assuming these are either leaders who feel the need to start being more digital, or you’re working with a leader who has this issue, this concern. The number one thing to do is to focus, pick one thing, on your top objects list. Most leaders have between three and five objectives that they are passionate about, they care deeply about. Think about how engagement could help you achieve one of those goals. If it’s not rooted in one of those objectives it would not be sustained.
It is the one thing I have been able to figure out with leaders and working with them, I could show them endless amounts of demos, give them tons of case examples, but until it becomes personal to them, something that is very important to them, they won’t pay attention to it. That’s what makes them great leaders is they focus and get things done. Focus on something that you can accomplish that want to get done. It could be the hardest thing that’s on your agenda. There’s probably a way that listening, sharing or engaging in these digital channels that can you help you with that goal.
Bernie: Terrific. Align their engagement plans with one key strategic objective that they care most about.
Charlene, before we sign of here today, where would you like to send people online to get to learn more about you and your book, The Engaged Leader?
Charlene: Come to my website. It’s charleneli.com. You can find me on all the major social media channels with that handle.
Bernie: Charleneli.com. My listeners know that we will link that up in our show notes page. That’ll be available for everyone.
Charlene, thank you so much for joining me here today on the Social Engine Business Podcast. I can’t wait for your next book because every book you publish, I’m going to read and learn from it.
Charlene: Great Bernie. It’s great talking to you.
Bernie: Likewise. Thank you, Charlene.
I hope that you enjoyed my conversation with Charlene Li. I hope that my audio was okay under the circumstances.
Before we sign off, I’ll remind you that this episode is in cooperation with IBM. I invite you to download Social Business Journal Volume 6, which we published with IBM and it’s titled, Inclusive Design in a Cognitive Era: Reinventing Enterprise Email to Make Workplaces more Productive, Efficient and Humane. As I mentioned in the introduction, this Journal is an ungated download. You can get it from our Journals page at our website or from the show notes page for this episode. If you’re subscribed by email to get our weekly podcast updates which we send every Friday then this Journal has already hit your inbox. If you’re not subscribed to get our weekly updates by email, and you’d like to be, just visit our subscribe page at our website socialbusinessengine.com.
If you’re a regular listener to the Social Business Podcast, thank you. I really appreciate that. If this is your first time listening to this podcast, thank you as well. I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope that you’ll push the subscribe button on your podcast player so that you get each of our weekly episodes delivered right to your player. If you’re an iTunes subscriber, I would be very grateful if you would write a review and share your sentiments about what you like about this podcast, or maybe how we can improve it. Reviews on iTunes help other people discover the podcast. We have a direct link to this podcast in iTunes, just go to socialbusinessengine.com/itunes. Lastly, I invite you to engage with me on Twitter. I am @BernieBorges. Our podcast handle on Twitter is @sbengine. We also have a Facebook page appropriately named facebook.com/socialbusinessengine. You can follow our hashtag pretty much everywhere on social media and that’s #sbeshow.
That’s going to do it for this episode. I want to thank my guest one again, Charlene Li, CEO and Principal Analyst at Altimeter Group. This is Bernie Borges of Find and Convert wishing you continued success on your social business journey.