Consultant Charlene Li on Technology and Open LeadershipPublished: January 21, 2011 in Knowledge@Emory
Avoiding social media is no longer a viable option for company leaders. As Charlene Li writes in her latest book, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, “Your natural inclination may be to fight this trend. To see it as a fad that you hope will fade and simply go away. It won’t . . . this trend is inevitable.”
Co-author of the 2008 bestseller Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,Li is a former principal analyst with Forrester Research and the founder of Altimeter Group, a consulting firm that assists businesses in leveraging disruptive technologies. In 2010, the magazine Fast Companynamed Li one of its “100 Most Creative People in Business” and ranked Altimeter Group one of the “10 Most Creative Small Businesses.” Liexplains that as customers and employees become savvy in terms of social media, they push organizations—and those who lead them—to be more open.
After Groundswell’s publication, Li met with a number of CEOs to discuss social media. According to her, they understood the need to use social media tools, but were concerned about the amount of control they’d need to give up to do so. Several executives asked just how open they needed to be. As Li considered the question, she realized it wasn’t all or nothing—there were degrees of openness, and just how open a company needed to be depended on what it wanted to accomplish.
Much of leadership is exercised within relationships, and as social technologies change the nature of those relationships, argues Li, leadership must also change. No longer will “command-and-control” leadership suffice. Successful leaders in an open era aren’t always going to be the ones who blog, Tweet, “check in” or tag others in photos. Some may never wholeheartedly embrace social technology. But they can still be open leaders, explains Li. Even the leadership archetype least receptive to social media—one she dubs the “worried skeptic,” a leader who worries that everything that can go wrong will—can compensate for his or her style by seeking out fellow leaders inside the company who are comfortable with new technologies.
In a recent Q&A with Knowledge@Emory, Li highlights several of the ideas presented in Open Leadership and expands on a few more.
Knowledge@Emory: Some companies avoid social media because they don’t want to deal with the possibility of negative comments. How do you counsel those companies?
LI: In relationships, you gain credibility by not shying away. The big change over the past couple of years is that people are asking, “Can I really afford not to do this?” I have examples of companies that have chosen not to do this, to not engage; the effort is too great, but it’s something they’ll do later. I’m absolutely fine with that. To choose not to this is to do something. But most people are doing nothing. They don’t know what people are doing or saying about them, and that’s inexcusable.
Knowledge@Emory: Social media offers powerful tools, but leaders with no history in technology may not be prepared to use them. How do they evolve and learn and ultimately create an open environment that’s sustainable?
LI:Slowly. The interesting thing is that a lot of companies got into social media because they had an evangelist or an early adopter in the company who just pushed it through. But then things got scattered across the organization because it was pushed; it wasn’t done strategically. As a result, their social media efforts aren’t organized. To make it operational requires a lot of discipline. It’s not something often associated with social media, but there must be processes and guidelines.
Knowledge@Emory: In the introduction to your most recent book, you write, “It’s critical that your organization not enter into these new open relationships without guidelines. . . . Being open requires more—not less—rigor and effort than being in control.” Part of that effort involves what you call “The Sandbox Covenant.” Can you explain that?
LI: One way to think about openness is the metaphor of a playground sandbox. There are clearly defined boundaries to the sandbox, and within those boundaries, it’s a safe place to play. But the sandbox has rules. There’s no throwing sand at other players in the sandbox and no taking someone else’s toys without permission.
Organizations need to define the walls of their sandbox: how big will it be? What activities do or don’t belong there? Depending on how open you want your company to be, you could have a huge sandbox like Zappo’s, which has no formal social media policy, or one that’s quite small. But be prepared to revise the size of your sandbox over time. If your open engagement strategy is successful, trust will build and everyone will feel safe enough to play in a bigger sandbox.
Knowledge@Emory: In the book you mention that asking about the ROI of social media is to miss the point.
LI: The ROI question isn’t the right question to ask. For executives, social media is about leadership aspects: How to use it to further business goals? How to ask the best questions? It’s about training them. These leaders can be worried skeptics. You’re not trying to make these changes overnight. Own that you’re a worried skeptic and know what kinds of questions to ask to overcome that. By nature you might be skeptical, you might be worried, but say, “These are my questions,” rather than, “No, I don’t get it and I don’t want to learn.” To operate from a point of ignorance is not responsible.
Knowledge@Emory: Something else you mention in the book is that a culture of open leadership is one where it’s okay to fail.
LI: The number one reason so many people are nervous about social media is that they think they can’t afford to take that kind of risk. In general, people are completely risk-adverse. But how horrible to be afraid of customers and employees in that way. To live under that cloud.
What are you really afraid of? What is the cost of a negative comment? Is your company so fragile it can’t get over that? That’s why the sandbox covenant is such a powerful idea.
Knowledge@Emory: Many of the metaphors in the book have references to childhood or children in them. Did being the mother of two small children influence your choice of metaphor?
LI: Absolutely. Parts of my life inform the book. Such as taking small steps. Working with organizations, I can see what happens if they move too quickly. I discuss the State Bank of India in the book. It moved extremely quickly [and was successful], but the bank had a plan. Many organizations want to move quickly, but they have no plan. What’s the strategy? How do we lead this? They can’t put together a strategy to lead the organization.
Knowledge@Emory: More than a few companies are experimenting with social media—employee blogs, company Facebook pages—but employees themselves are blocked from accessing social media sites while at work. How do you address that contradiction?
LI:About half of all companies block social media. They claim it’s a productivity issue. I understand why they do it, but you might as well block solitaire.
Knowledge@Emory: Some observers believe that more companies are coming around to open leadership as a part of a human resource approach—that what they offer their employees in terms of an employee value proposition includes an open environment. Is that what you’re seeing?
LI: We’re now beginning to see social media training as part of development training. I think of my book as part of a course, that people would use it in that way, giving them exercises to help them think about the changes that are happening.
Some companies are putting in Yammer, which is like Twitter inside of a company. One CEO I talked to who had done so found the results extraordinary, but also very disruptive. Some of his front line managers were completely torn up about it.
Knowledge@Emory: How did they get over that?
LI: The way to get through any disruption is one step at a time. We need to get comfortable living in a disruptive world.
Knowledge@Emory: And to do that, a company needs a strategy.
LI:Yes—a strategy that takes into account the seismic shifts that can happen on a dime. Things aren’t stable. So how do you live in a disruptive world? You create a strategy that’s robust enough, that’s resilient enough. One where leadership bends with disruption—disruptions such as a change in consumer taste, or economic change, or if a competitor does something wacky.
Knowledge@Emory: And how does a company build a strategy that takes disruption and openness into account?
LI: I’m thinking my next book will be a strategy book on how to put together a strategy to lead this [type of open] organization.
Knowledge@Emory: What types of leadership characteristics work best in an open environment?
LI:One is the ability to communicate very, very well. You have to form relationships and form trust to be credible, and you become credible by being out there. By saying, “This is what we’re going to do” and then doing it—over and over again.
For instance, presidents George W. Bush and Obama have different leadership styles. Bush led in a silo. But Bush also said, “This is what we’re going to do,” and he said it over and over. He understood that part of leadership. Obama isn’t invested as much in that type of leadership. It might help him if he did more of that—appropriately so. To reiterate his message in every channel he can.
Knowledge@Emory: In your book you also mention the leadership characteristics of authenticity and transparency.
LI: Authenticity is important. It’s also not something you are, it’s something you earn. Transparency as well. People have to believe you’re transparent. For instance, Bush wasn’t perceived as authentic or transparent.
Knowledge@Emory: Social media is disruptive, but it’s not as if Facebook is the first disruptive thing to happen to organizations.
LI:One of the oldest social tools is the discussion board. Forty years ago they were totally disruptive. Facebook isn’t the first social network; it’s just the first one that is this dynamic and powerful and that uses a person’s real identity.
Knowledge@Emory: What trends or technologies are you and the Altimeter Group following?
LI: We’re following five general trends. Social business, disruptive networks, new user experiences—such as gaming and any “reality experience” along with the content. Data is another big trend. Social data—how to make that interactive and how to create tools to harness that data. We’re not even close to tapping that data and making it useful. The last trend we’re following is location—location as metadata. Location as context—knowing where you are. Most conversations start off talking about the weather. We need that type of thing to place where we are. That context connects us.
Knowledge@Emory: In terms of social media, are many of the challenges actuarial?
LI: I don’t think they are. Young people use social media a little more, but the fastest growing group on Facebook is over 35. My peers have really driven this and we’re not exactly spring chickens. Think about email. It’s not an issue now, but it was. Three years from now, Facebook will be mainstream. Is it actuarial? Yes. For every ten 20-somethings using it, there’s one senior. But some seniors are like Bill Marriott.
Knowledge@Emory: Let’s talk more about Bill Marriott, the CEO of hotel chain Marriott. He’s nearly 80 years old and has been an active blogger since 2007.
LI: Bill Marriott doesn’t understand the technology—he can’t even type—but he realizes it’s a great way to communicate with customers and stakeholders. It’s not about the technology. It’s about what you want to achieve with your open strategy. You don’t have to be a techie, you just have to figure out how you, personally, will use these tools to have a successful open strategy. Most of the leaders I talk about in the book are in their 40s and 50s. It’s not an age; it’s a mindset.
Knowledge@Emory: What careers do you see being created as a result of the intersection of social media and the business world?
LI: There’s tremendous opportunity for jobs that I believe will be around for a decade or two: social strategists, community managers. Digital marketing is now wrapped into something bigger. There’s huge growth and need for expertise—someone with scar tissue, as I say in the book. Right now, people are learning on the job. We’re hoping to change that. We have an extraordinary opportunity to change that.
The career aspects of this—the basic skills of being an open leader—will stand well by you. Leadership is something you begin today. A good example is Marc Benioff, chairman & CEO of Salesforce.com. He recently held his annual gathering of top managers, and he invited the company’s top 25 “Chatterati.” [In mid-2010, Salesforce.com launched Chatter, an enterprise social collaboration app and platform that, according to the company website, allows employees to “follow” documents, people, business processes and application data. Chatter is essentially a social network within a company.] Chatterati may not be those employees who are leaders [by title], but they’re creating as much value as a senior vice president.
Knowledge@Emory: You have an MBA from Harvard. What do you see as the role of business schools in preparing leaders to operate in an open environment?
LI: It’s about being pragmatic. There are different, more holistic, skills needed today to be successful. But it's also about having the right mindset about what it means to be a leader—and to be able to recognize different types of leaders in your organization to nurture and support.