Most organizations are now on some social media channels, yet many of their leaders are not. According to bestselling author Charlene Li, CEO and founder of Altimeter Group, leaders must directly connect with those they lead and serve — or be left behind. In her new book, The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation, Li challenges leaders to use social technologies to connect with their customers and employees.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your book is titled The Engaged Leader. When I was talking about the book with one of my colleagues, he asked, “How can someone be a leader and not be engaged?” This is probably one of the cruxes of your argument: It really is possible, but you might not be aware of it. Can you tell me what the difference is between the two?
Charlene Li: Being an engaged leader is the epitome of what leadership means. You can’t be a leader in isolation. Yet today so many leaders are completely absent from the digital and social channels where their customers and employees are. They are not engaged at all. They feel like they need to be, but they don’t really want to be. They don’t know how to do it. They are terrified of it…. It’s time for them to actually figure out how to do this, why to do it and how to be successful at it. That’s why I wrote the book.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the introduction to your book, you use IBM CEO Ginni Rometty as an example of someone who has very thoughtfully chosen which digital platforms are going to give her the most business value. How can a leader perform that kind of self-inventory and make that distinction between what is strategically valuable and what they are comfortable with? It’s very easy sometimes for us to say, “Well, that’s not important,” but what we actually mean is, “I’m not very comfortable with that, and I don’t want to do it.”
Li: It’s an honest dialogue you have to have with yourself, which is to say, “Am I choosing not to be there because it’s not strategically important? Or am I not being there because, just by default, I haven’t taken the time to really look at it and think about it?” In the case of Ginni Rometty, she has a Twitter account and has never tweeted on it. But they keep it open, so she and her team can see when people are including her in the conversation. She is using it to listen to what people are saying to her.
Then, she uses that information to share content and to engage, but primarily with people internally through videos that she creates, the conversations that those videos stir up and in the forums and the jam sessions throughout the company. She goes out and engages very strategically to achieve her goal which is to turn IBM around, make it more innovative. What could be more important at this point? She looked at Twitter and said, “It’s important to be there to listen, but that’s all I’m going to use it for.”
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s really not just about what platforms am I going to use or am I not going to use, but also what’s there and how am I going to use it?
“Being an engaged leader is the epitome of what leadership means. You can’t be a leader in isolation.”
Li: More importantly, why am I using this? It needs to be, again, not just because it’s important to be there but to achieve a strategic goal. That’s the difference between being a leader using these tools or just being on them as a person. Many of these leaders use these channels personally, but they are at a loss as to how to use them at work, how to use them to accomplish their leadership objectives.
Again, it goes back to what your goals are. In the book, we start immediately with what are your goals? What are you trying to achieve as a leader? How would you measure it? And then everything follows from those objectives.
Knowledge at Wharton: I found it really interesting that you mentioned middle managers as one group that is fighting this shift because they are no longer the first lines of communication between top leaders and the rank and file. It’s so easy these days for top leaders to reach out to customers or for employees to reach out to a CEO they might never have met. Because middle managers are probably the engaged top leaders of tomorrow, what would your advice be to these people? How do you work to carve out a role for yourself, no matter what level of a company you’re at?
Li: That’s a great question because they often feel like they are caught in the middle. In the past, they had the power because they controlled what information flowed up and what decisions got passed down. Now there’s direct communications. What’s my role as a manager in between? Babysitting people? What do I do? They have to redefine their roles from being gatekeepers to facilitators, people who can facilitate the flow of all of this information. The fact that they can be more networked, they can be more engaged throughout the organization, not just with their team, really gives them the new source of power and influence. They are at the crux of this place where leadership is being divorced from your title. It’s really becoming more about who will follow you and your leadership and your ideas, the stories you tell, the engagement that you choose to have to again accomplish not just your goals, but also the company’s goals.
Knowledge at Wharton: Right. Because people are not navigating toward a title; they are navigating toward a person and how a person makes them feel.
Li: Right. It goes back to the relationship. All leadership is a relationship between people who aspire to lead and those who are inspired to follow. That doesn’t come from your position anymore. It doesn’t come from the title or direct management responsibilities or budgets. In this world where work is done across silos and across different levels of the organization, that leadership becomes even more important.
Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of this requires some knowledge of technology. If you’re a leader who is not tech savvy, how do you dive in? You make the point in the book that this whole process should not be the job of just the Millennials on your team or the tech guys on your team or the tech savvy on your team. But if you’re a leader, how do you take advantage of these people’s knowledge and their expertise and their experience without making it their job?
Li: If you can shop, you can tweet. It’s more the thought of the art of this and the science of this. What will you say? When will you engage? What are the stories you will tell? That’s the art of leadership. What leaders know how to do is how to lead. Now, for whatever reason, when they are faced with a new technology, all sense of confidence that they know how to lead goes out the window because they don’t think they know what to do with technologies.
“Many … leaders use [social media] channels personally, but they are at a loss as to … how to use them to accomplish their leadership objectives.”
There are some basic rules and etiquettes around the technologies. But I have found that it’s so much easier to teach a leader how to use these technologies to be an [engaged] leader than it is to teach a Millennial who knows how to use these technologies to lead. They don’t know how to lead in life, let alone in these channels. It’s putting that confidence back in the hands of these leaders — to say, “You know what you want to accomplish.” What you need to get from these people is, “This is the story I want to tell. What’s the best way to tell that story? This is the outcome I want. What are the right channels and tools and … language that I have to use to develop that in these channels?”
Knowledge at Wharton: Because of Twitter and Facebook, a lot of these technologies are really facilitating quick communication: A leader has to respond almost immediately, or they can if they want to. I wonder if that makes people a bit gun shy because they just don’t have the time to think or process like we did 10, 15, 20 years ago. When leaders are called on to immediately read an audience that they may never see or even meet, how do they do that and still be authentic? How do they strike that balance between being authentic but being appropriate?
Li: Well, let’s talk about authenticity first and then we’ll talk about speed. Authenticity is not something that comes naturally to people if you think about it. It’s because there’s a sense of vulnerability, a level of trust and truth telling and openness. You have to have confidence in that relationship to open up in that way. If you’re not confident in how you’re expressing yourself or what kind of relationship you’re building with people in these channels, you just walk into it — and to immediately expect that you can be authentic is a hard thing to do.
As a starting point, I ask leaders again to listen. That begins to give you an idea of what people want to hear. Then start with the stories that they need to hear to inspire the action that you want, that you are both aligned to want to achieve. I find that stories are a great starting point because everybody loves a story. Stories told from your point of view, from your perspective … will get listened to….
I like to say, yeah, sure, nobody wants to know what you had for lunch, right? That’s not very interesting. But they would like to hear what you talked about over lunch. What’s important to you? Give me a story of how you talked to an employee or to a customer or to a partner who made you think about how much more aligned we are with our purpose and mission. That’s what they need to hear from you. That’s absolutely authentic.
“[Middle managers] have to redefine their roles from being gatekeepers to facilitators, people who can facilitate the flow of all of this information.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What about the speed? How does the speed fit in?
Li: There’s a sense that because everything is happening in real time you have to operate in real time. To some extent you do, but I think we overestimate how quickly we have to respond. Unless you’re in a crisis situation, you can pick and choose when and how you want to engage. It’s very important because you can in no way respond to everything that’s out there. This is not e-mail. This is not action being required from you as a leader across everything. In fact, you should be very planful and intentional about the things you engage with because that shows what’s really important to you and what you think is important for the organization to focus on.
Knowledge at Wharton: I would think that if you choose to engage with everything, you’re never going to have time to do that.
Li: It’s impossible. You have to pick and choose.
Knowledge at Wharton: Now, that brings me to another driver of change that you discuss — big data. It made me wonder how engaged leaders combine using data with stories, with authenticity. How do you figure out how to use data and ask the right questions? We could have as much data as we want these days, but it’s really about how you use it and which data you’re using.
Li: My colleague Susan Etlinger does a lot of work with, “What do you do with all this big data anyway?” One of the things that we often talk about is that it’s not about amassing the biggest data store…. That’s actually pretty easy. We can put it together. The hard part is asking the right questions, so you know what data to get and also, what are the things that you’re hoping to answer. Those questions, again, are driven by your strategic goals.
One of your goals might be, “We’re trying to break into a new audience and to a new market place.” Then the big data you want is: What is that marketplace doing? What are the people there doing? What are they saying to each other? What do they care about? What motivates them? What do their psycho-graphics look like? How do they talk about our brand? What are [they saying] about our competition? With all of those very specific questions, we can now start [asking]: Well, what is the data I need to help me make those kinds of decisions? How do I get the right data so I know what people are thinking about, so I can begin a relationship with them?
“If you can shop, you can tweet.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a specific platform or a specific type of data that you think is being overlooked by a lot of leaders that they should be paying more attention to?
Li: The unstructured data is probably the most powerful one, and such data being just a commentary that exists on particular topics, like on Twitter update book links and even internally inside of your organization. How well can you listen? I talk about listening at scale, where you’re no longer just listening with your ears, one by one, to the customers, but you’re also listening with your eyes because you can read a lot faster. It’s a skill of feeling comfortable scanning and dipping in. It is not even close to being statistical but you get a sense and a tone and a pulse for what’s happening in the marketplace and inside your own company.
This takes seconds. It takes minutes throughout the day to just log in, go into your Twitter panel and your dashboards and to your internal social networks and just scroll through a couple of the feeds. See what you find.
Knowledge at Wharton: Doing that and doing that well would also really require you to let go of a certain amount of what you think the narrative is. Just thinking about my past life as a newspaper reporter, one of things I always thought was most important is listening to a source without thinking about what I thought the story was going in, because it could be something completely different. I would think that’s also important when leaders are trying to do this. They have to forget the narrative they have in their heads or what they thought it was and be open to it being something different.
Li: …I don’t think that they necessarily have to give it up. They have to keep that in perspective, saying, this is my point of view. Can I validate it? Or is there something else that I need to understand and work into that point of view and adjust it, modify it or completely change it? Can I actually verify the fact that this truth that I think is the road actually exists? And there’s nothing better than knowing what’s out there.
I talk to CEOs all the time, and they say the hardest thing for them to get at is the truth. What is really going on out there? Because it’s so fuzzy. They are so distant from it. They have all these layers between them and the employees and the front lines and customers out in the stores and on locations. This allows them to see the truth unvarnished, unpolished, raw. And they crave it.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you offer a worksheet for creating a digital transformation plan. Could you talk a little bit about the major attributes of that, and how you would recommend readers combine this with what they will learn from the book?
Li: Yes. The worksheet, chapter by chapter, builds up what your plan should look like. It always starts with your objectives: What are you trying to achieve? Every leader I know is very clear about what their goals are. Write those down. It is usually between three and five goals…. [Include] the measurements of how you would know that you actually achieved it. It doesn’t have to necessarily be numbers. It could be a description of the current state and the future state. But how would you know that you’re actually achieving that goal?
Then look at listening at scale, sharing to shape and engaging to transform. What are the things you can do in those three areas to help you achieve those goals? It is a really simple worksheet, but the difference here is this is not about specific channels. This is not about starting with the technologies first. It’s really starting with your goals and then saying, how can these activities be done to achieve those goals?