Open leadership webcast recap: How social technology can transform how you lead with Charlene Li

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The Open Your World webcast series highlights leaders and thinkers in the open source space—in business, in technology, and in life.  Our most recent guest was Charlene Li, whose latest book, Open Leadership, is a New York Times bestseller. She also co-authored the popular new-media tome, Groundswell, and is a founder of the advisory firm Altimeter Group.

This is a summary of Charlene Li's webcast presentation.

The changing world

Charlene Li joined us to discuss the challenges that organizations now face in the world of new communications, the principles of the open source way, and how they can (and should) be used to promote transparency and truth. She is also a bit of an expert in the social media arena, and truly understands the ways openness is at play in that environment. Li seems to think, as we do, that the future of leadership is somewhere beyond the crossroads of those two elements.

Li first spoke about the questions that clients most often ask her when she talks to them about their place in the new, more open world:

  • What does the open world look like?
  • What do we do to be more open?
  • How do we engage with customers?
  • How do we keep control?
  • How open do we have to be?

She stresses that questions around authenticity, transparency, and reality are concerns that everyone, in every industry, now finds themselves asking.

She admits that neither businesses nor people—personally or professionally—can be absolutely 100% open. Even if you mean to be, it's simply not possible. The flat volume of information any person or any organization knows is immense. And it is not reasonable to expect someone to know precisely what someone else wants or needs. There will be gaps in oversight, and logistical, legal, and business reasons that not all data can be shared.

And because this kind of world with this amount of open data is so new, people are engaging timidly. They feel out-of-control. Uncertain. And the first thing people who feel a  loss of control or certainty do is reflexively seek more control. Being open—and being free with your information, time, and expertise—might very well be the antithesis of this instinct.

Planning is the best preparation

Thus, suggests Li, it requires careful planning. Organizations must give up control but remain in command through strategy, solid leadership, and a clear and concise paradigm. They must set realistic goals and expectations and ensure they are understood by all the people that will be participating.

Li outlined four general goals that are common to most open strategies:

  1. Learn what your customers and employees are saying (and how, where, and when they say it).
  2. Dialogue with customers and employees. Find out about their wants, needs, and communication styles.
  3. Support the wants and needs of customers, as much as possible. When it's not possible, explain.  Don't make excuses.
  4. Innovate using the knowledge you've gained.

This adds a new dimension to the customer and client research businesses must do—Li refers to it as sociographic information. Where do your clients gather online? Where are your solutions or services discussed? How do your customers prefer to interact?

There is no substitute for engagement

Advances in tools and technology allow us to listen to each other in new ways. Companies know more about their customers than ever before. But listening is not enough. Customers want to engage with those they do business with. Businesses that succeed are the ones that listen and respond to their customers; businesses that succeed wildly form true relationships. To illustrate the ways in which customers interact today, Li constructs a simple pyramid of customer engagement.

At the base are the most widespread but simplest forms of engagement: watching and sharing. People read about your company. You share information, and they repeat that information to others.

True customer interaction begins in the middle of the pyramid, with commenting. Opening up news or blog posts to free commenting allows communication to flow both ways. You say something, customers respond. When businesses respond to the comments honestly, dialogue begins. Customers feel their needs are recognized and get their questions answered. Trust is built.

Only when these conversations are taking place successfully can you move up the pyramid to the peak elements—curation, production. Truly engaged customers working with an open business they trust are involved in their own success and the success of others. They may take responsibility for information, for themselves or for others. They can work in tandem with your company and with other clients seeking similar solutions.

Li chose a pyramid on purpose—the lower levels of engagement form the foundation of your relationship. Customers must be able to watch and share freely, and converse with your business honestly, in order to form the foundation of future, deeper relationships. Without freedom and trust, these relationships cannot continue upwards.

Command and control

Li defines true open leadership as “having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control,” while still inspiring others to believe in you by acting in the best interests of your community of customers. She puts an even finer point on it, acknowledging that—in truth—you're only giving up something that is pretty intangible to start with. The idea of having control, after all, isn't really control. Absolute control, like 100% openness, is a fallacy.

But humility is a true thing. Li admits, as we all have to admit at times: I am still learning. I will make mistakes. We grow from mistakes. But we cannot grow alone, and certainly not if we always hide and cover our errors.

Truly open leaders address this in two ways:

  1. authenticity
  2. transparency

Pretty simple, that. Be who you say you are. Prove it. In the state of North Carolina (Red Hat's HQ), it's the state motto: Esse Quam Videri.  To be, rather than to seem.

And, as Li has explained through the engagement pyramid—the only way, in today's media environment, to be rather than to seem is to have a genuine relationship with customers. It takes both time and effort to construct these kinds of bonds. No matter how open your company is, people have to believe what you say for it to matter.

Organizational rediness

Not all organizations are ready to be completely open. Li emphasizes that the first question to ask, when considering more open leadership, is “How open are you today?” If an organization is entirely closed, and aligned around closed principles, the process towards openness may be difficult. An organization that already operates fairly transparently will have less resistance.

To help identify transparent behaviors inside (or outside) of an organization, Li provides ten elements of openness.

Six are aligned around information-sharing:

  1. explaining
  2. updating
  3. conversing
  4. open mic
  5. crowdsourcing
  6. platforms, APIs, standards

And four around decision-making:

  1. centralized
  2. democratic
  3. consensus
  4. distributed

Many of the information-sharing qualities are self-explanatory. Are corporate decisions explained? Is everyone (not just executives and need-to-knows) kept up-to-date? How open are the lines of communication? Li uses 'open mic' to represent the ease with which anyone—from the mail clerk to the CTO to the customer—can contribute their thoughts on business matters. Are ideas crowdsourced? Are there standard tools and interfaces that support interactivity between business units, or between the business and its customers?

Openness in decision-making may be a bit more difficult to determine; decisions may get made in different ways in different parts of the same company. But many kinds of governance are open, just to different degrees—but you may have to look hard to find them.

And, Li notes, many of these choices are intertwined. For example, you need to be able to explain, update, and converse with your customers successfully, in order for them to trust you enough to give you their best ideas. You can't crowdsource from a crowd that doesn't think you'll use their work wisely.

Getting started

Li's talk was full of examples. In her closing, she extensively talked about Best Buy as an example of a company that moved fairly quickly and successfully into a wider social space. They addressed problems—like a misdirected email—honestly and quickly. They allowed their employees to participate (if they chose to) in open conversations with customers. They did make mistakes, but corrected and communicated them, and had far more success than failure.

Li's last pieces of advice revolved around preparation. How can organizations who want to succeed like Best Buy be better prepared for this new open style of leadership?

1. Create a culture of sharing.
Start with small steps. Share or co-create content in one place. Then another. Ask people what they'd like to work together on, or have help with.

2. Create discipline.
Lay out clear processes for sharing. Ad-hoc efforts are useful, but become less effective as your project or organization grows. Plan ahead and make sure everyone has the tools and connections they need.

3. Provide and examine metrics.
You're going to have to ask some questions. Figure out what you're looking for and make sure it is clear to the people you engage to get it done. For example, do you want to improve customer loyalty, satisfaction, or value?  Social media provides some insight into engagement, but it is largely a measure of engagement in, well, social media. To find out more about your customers, you will need to use social media to form relationships with them, in order to get truthful, useful answers.

Li does give a word of caution—not all companies are built to move quickly into this space. Those without agile leadership, who do not understand the Google mantra of “Fail fast, fail smart” will certainly not accept a wholesale transition into open leadership, and perhaps balk at even small steps. But those small efforts, like the foundation elements of engagement, build the trust needed to take larger leaps into modern, open communications.

And with those small efforts it is possible, as Li says, "to give up control but still be in command" in a this now-open world.

Editor, writer, and developer. I wear many hats, including the red one. Graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism; long-time interest in all things geeky. Editor of Red Hat Magazine and grizzled industry veteran, including time as an archivist for SunSITE UNC (now and ten-plus years at my current gig. I love:

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