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Charlene Li, Expert on Digital Transformation and Leadership

Charlene Li left her job as an analyst in 2008 to found her own company, Altimeter, while simultaneously publishing her first of many books. She talks to The Industry Leaders about how she harnessed the power of social media marketing against the backdrop of the financial crisis, and how she has gone on to teach other leaders how to thrive among disruptive circumstances.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today?

My purpose is to help leaders of organisations thrive amidst disruption. I've worked with a lot of very large organisations, including Global 100 companies, but I also work with leaders from all walks of life — sometimes they're in academia, or nonprofits and startups. My work, talking to leaders about creating strategy and culture, is all based on thriving amid change and disruption.

I got here through a circuitous route. I came out of Harvard Business School, went into newspapers, and then became a researcher and analyst, which is what I’ve been doing for 21 years now. Along the way, I started writing books. Whether I’m writing whole books or short tweets, it's all in the service of connecting with my audience.

I noticed that you founded Altimeter in 2008, and when you did that you left what a lot of people would consider a safe and prospective career as a principal analyst at Forrester. Can you tell us why you made that decision to move from such a good job to create something new, and how you stayed resilient at the time of a global financial crisis?

Frankly, I got very lucky. In the spring of 2008, I published my first book, Groundswell, which is about how companies can utilise social media. After working on that book, I wanted to expand the things I was working on, but as an analyst at Forrester, I was expected to focus on one particular area of interactive media and marketing. So, after almost ten years, I decided it was time to leave and start my own thing. I was incredibly lucky to secure three great clients right before everything crashed and the financial crisis hit.

Then, during that time, I decided to write my next book and start growing a company. Again, very luckily, because of the financial crisis, people cut all of their marketing budgets, so instead, they looked to this new thing called social media to distribute their marketing. And I had this best-selling book on the exact subject, and so we grew like gangbusters in 2009 and 2010.

You mentioned your books and I know that you've authored six to date, covering topics like leadership, disruption and succeeding in business. If you were to point a first-time leader or first-time entrepreneur, to one in particular, where would you direct them?

I do like this little book that I wrote back in 2015, called The Engaged Leader. It’s a simple manual that says that if you want to be an engaged, transformative leader then you have to be able to listen at scale, and you need to be able to share in order to connect, and you have to engage in the conversation in order to transform it. These three skills of listening, sharing and engaging are all about how you think about your leadership. Overall, the book questions what kind of relationship you want with the people you're leading. If you can think about leadership as a relationship, then you can start thinking about it very differently.

Relationships are at the core of the work I do. You can talk about technologies as much as you want, but in the end, they don't matter if you don't know what kind of relationships you want to create with those technologies.

I also like my latest book, The Disruption Mindset, because it lays out how to actually change and transform your organisation. As a first time leader, you should be thinking strategically about how to lead, and how to lead change — because that's what you do as a leader, you create change.

On the topic of change and disruption, is there a particular industry that excites you, or one that’s about to blow up? Where should people be looking now to find an industry that is ripe for disruption?

There is disruption happening in every industry I look at. What's fascinating is that people saw a lot of change happening over the past two years, but our research shows that they think even more disruption is going to happen over the next two years. What has happened is that we've gotten used to this change; we've gotten much more comfortable and confident in managing massive amounts of change. In five to ten days, we achieved what we thought would have taken five to ten years.

What I see now is less industry change on a whole, but more pockets in every single industry opening up where people are doing highly disruptive things. I'll give an example: I was speaking to an executive a few years ago who told me that he couldn’t believe that his industry was being so disrupted. He was in the sand manufacturing business which had only five distributors of that sand. But then he said that I had to understand his customers — in particular glass manufacturers.

The glass industry is one of the most innovative spaces because it goes into products like our phones; it goes into all the displays; it goes into cars, and it's constantly changing. He said to me that we have to be so attuned to what the end-users are trying to make and connect that with all this raw material so that we can stay on top of sand development. So when I hear the sand manufacturers say that they’re being highly disrupted, I don't think any industry is safe from facing a huge amount of change just now!

I'm also very fascinated to see how the whole financial services industry is going to develop because there's so much change happening there. Especially with FinTech happening, you now have cryptocurrencies coming on board and challenging the entire foundation of money. These are fundamental issues that ask these questions: what is wealth; what is money; what is a financial institution? As that industry is very public, it’s easy for all of us to watch what’s going to happen next.

In terms of your personal leadership, you've built a huge following on LinkedIn. How did you do it?

I was very lucky. As an analyst covering social media on social media, I was able to get onto the LinkedIn influencer program, and that really helped grow my audience very, very quickly, early on. I think one of the most interesting things to do with LinkedIn is to not talk about what you see, but what you think your audience needs. How can you help your audience? Everything from your profile to the content you post has to be geared to your audience and what they need to hear in order to do whatever it is that they're doing better. So having a really clear idea of who your audience is, and what their needs are, is essential.

Everything from your profile to the content you post has to be geared to your audience

I have a persona that I write to. Her name is Valerie, and she is a senior leader at a financial institution. She is a woman of colour, the parent of two young kids, and she is very active in her life and community. At work, she's frustrated because she wants to create change in her organisations as much as she's creating change in her personal life, but her leaders and managers have things locked down. She has some ideas about how she can move things forward, but she needs some inspiration and some support; she needs to know that other people are in the same situation because she can feel so lonely.

I have this fully fleshed out; I can write to Valerie every single time I think about her. What words would inspire her? What content would help her along on her journey? My entire team is focused on Valerie — you can ask them; they know her profile, too — they can tell you explicitly who this customer is. I think that's the best thing you can do. It's not about what you find interesting, it's about what content would help the people you are trying to serve. So I never write anything to make myself look better.

On the topic of advice, would you say that there's been a particular piece that resonated with you and that you've carried with you on your journey?

I was at Harvard Business School, in my second semester, having no clue what I wanted to do with my life because my original plans got all blown up. And one of the best pieces of advice I learned in my entire business school career was that your career is going to be the most important asset you will ever manage, so manage it as if it's the most important asset.

Think about where you want to be 18 months from now — not three years or five years, but 18 months from now because that's long enough away that you can start taking some action today. That has been great advice because now I constantly look 18 months into the future, and I have regular times when I sit back and do assessments about where I am.

I'm actively managing my career. I tend to stay at companies for a very long time, so there's something about this 18-month profile that allows me to stay motivated, engaged and fulfilled because I'm not wondering about what else is out there; instead, I'm actively asking myself whether I’m interested in what's going on.

When I have team members who have been working with me for 18 or 24 months, I encourage them to go out and look, to go out and do informational interviews. Sometimes they find a better fit, and I’ll be 100 per cent supportive of them finding their new job. More often than not, however, they come running back and tell me that they looked, but whatever they found isn’t nearly as good as what they have here. It leads to them being happier and more engaged. I can say that from my own experience when I went out and looked it made me realise that I have a great job. I really like what I do. 80 per cent of the time, I get to do exactly what I want.

I feel like employers around the world would applaud what you were saying there.

Saying to a new employee that you will talk with them about their last day of work on their first day of work is an acknowledgement that they’re probably not going to work there forever. It establishes this relationship of openness so that, when the time comes for them to leave, you can have an honest conversation about their skills expanding beyond their role, and then help them find their next position. In return, you can ask them to give you plenty of time to hire their replacement and train them.

The most devastating thing for a leader is to have somebody give you a two-week notice. Why do we do this to ourselves? Isn't it better for the organisation and for everybody if we're much more honest about this and much fairer about how we treat people? They are living, breathing humans who have a life and a career ahead of them.

Why is it you think people don't talk like that?

Because we’ve been trained by HR that we can't do that. We've been trained that, when we come to work, we don't talk about these things. If you actually admit that you're not happy with your job, you could lose it. And as the employer, if you say that something is potentially wrong and you give some feedback to your employee out of the blue, telling them that they’re not as focused on things as you’d like, the employee could think that their job is at stake, or that they’re going to be put on a performance improvement plan.

Compare that to you giving constant feedback and creating a proper dialogue. By doing that, you can know exactly where you stand with each other, and you can be sure that everything that has to be said has been said. There aren’t any misunderstandings; there aren’t any blindsides; it's all out there. And because it's so clear, we can just get down to work.

When I have team members who have been working with me for 18 or 24 months, I encourage them to go out and look, to do informational interviews.

This whole idea that you can actually be honest and tell the truth has been beaten out of us as something that's dangerous. People think that, as a leader, it’s something that you shouldn’t do because it’s risky. But I would counter that by saying that it's so much riskier if you don't tell the truth because of what people really want from our leaders — they want honesty, and they want fairness. If it's bad news on the horizon, tell them, and trust them that they are grown up enough to deal with the bad news. If you don't tell them, how can they help? How can they turn things around?

You mentioned something else that I just want to touch on. You spoke about how you're constantly looking months in advance to make sure that you're heading down the right path. Do you ever find yourself frustrated that things aren't happening as fast as they should, or in the way that they should?

Yes, constantly. I'm one of these people whose biggest strength is being a maximiser. I'm always trying to get the most out of every situation, every asset, every person, and every relationship, and it frustrates me when I have to pull back from that because of resources or of time capabilities. I can get really stressed or upset about this whole idea of just surrendering to the current circumstances. Instead, I could be at peace with it and recognise that this is the best circumstance provided to me.

I can't ask for perfection because that doesn't exist. All I can ask for is excellence in the work that we do. Being present and being excellent is all that we can expect of ourselves, whereas the results are completely out of our control. When I accept that, my life is so much better.

Have you had any particular challenges or times where you thought something wasn’t going to work out?

I remember a moment when I was leading at Altimeter, and I had taken my eye off the ball. I didn’t see a disaster coming with our cash flow because I was focusing on a book. I realised that we were hiring people without closing enough deals in order to manage that to the extent that we were going to be out of cash in two weeks. So I had to make some really drastic decisions and let a bunch of people go that I had just hired.

I realised that we were hiring people without closing enough deals, we were going to be out of cash in two weeks.

I really regretted that; it was something completely avoidable that I could have anticipated. One of the lessons that came from that experience was about being more on top of things, having good dashboards and having good discipline around the operations of the business. I can afford to put things on autopilot every now and then as long as I have an alarm system set up to make sure that I’m on track.

Obviously, you bounced back spectacularly from that moment of strife. So what’s next? What do the next 18 months hold for you, and how can people follow that journey as well?

I have just launched a new podcast, The New Rules of Disruption, this week, so there will be lots of new content from that. I’m out of my comfort zone with that, so I’m having a really good time with it. I’m also launching a course to help leaders be better change agents and better disruptive leaders. That will be debuting over the next few months, and then the course itself will launch in February.

I’m just finding different ways to engage and connect with leaders. What I see laying out over the next few months is finding new ways to do research and finding new topics that I’m curious about. I’m looking at podcasting, creating courses, and I love my live streams as a way to connect with people, but I probably won’t be on TikTok anytime soon because my audience isn’t really there!

People can follow me on my website, Another place I’m very active is on LinkedIn — that’s probably my most active channel.

Check out the full interview with Charlene here:


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