Raising the Bar on the Digitally Engaged Leader

Altimeter Group's Charlene Li explains why CEOs must listen to their customers and engage their workforces more effectively.
Employee Engagement

Having an active digital presence has become critical in business and leaders have realized they need to keep up. In the past, leaders largely shunned social media and other digital tools because it was considered too risky; CEOs feared saying the wrong thing and threatening the company's reputation. Now, employees and customers expect leaders to be transparent about their company's story and join the conversation.

Charlene Li, founder and CEO of Altimeter Group, addresses the challenges CEOs face in building a digital presence in her new book, The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation. 1to1 Media spoke with Li about tips leaders can use to listen to customers, share ideas, and engage their workforces more effectively.

1to1 Media: What inspired you to write this book?

Charlene Li:
Many leaders are feeling pressure to engage with their customers and their credibility is on the line. They're asking employees to engage customers on social media and are facing the question, 'What about you?' But not all CEOs or business leaders are comfortable with the idea of putting themselves out there. So I wanted to create a strategy for using digital social tools to help executives become more engaged leaders.

What misconceptions do employers have about using digital tools for engaging employees and customers?

The biggest misconception is that it takes a lot of time and will take away from other things. The way I explain it is, 'Can you take 15 minutes at a minimum to listen to the people who can help you make better decisions about your business?" The response is, 'Of course I can listen to my employees and customers." So many people focus on the idea that they'll need to write things without realizing that listening is just as important."

In your book, you mention different types of listening such as passive versus active listening and inside the stream versus outside the stream. What are the types of listening that leaders need to get better at?

Actively or regularly listening to what people are saying about your company on different channels has to be covered first. Passive listening can be added on later. It's amazing how many business leaders don't have good listening tools in place. Or else the companies use listening tools but the CEOs don't have direct access to them. That's a mistake.

The CEO just needs to have a feel for what's going on; it doesn't have to be time consuming. You'll see leaders doing town hall visits with employees or customers doing a temperature check. That's helpful, but's more powerful if the CEO also has direct contact with his or her constituents.

How can leaders take listening to the next level and make it actionable and scalable?

The key to scaling engagement is knowing when and how to engage. For example, President Obama just launched his own Twitter handle (@POTUS). Imagine the policies and guidelines that had to be put in place for the President to have his own Twitter handle. Most likely whenever President Obama puts a tweet out, he'll have a support team to help track responses. Also knowing when not to engage is an important part of scaling your interactions. This is why companies have guidelines and strategies for engaging with employees and customers.

What surprised you as you were researching your book? Did you expect companies to be further along in certain areas?

What was interesting was I found companies that called themselves digital companies, but when I asked to speak with their CEOs about their digital strategies, many turned me down. Many people told me that while the company has a digital strategy the leaders weren't digital. That's a huge disconnect. But I totally respect the decision for leaders not to be engaged on external-facing platforms like Twitter.

For example, I opened the book with IBM CEO Gina Rometty who has a Twitter account but doesn't tweet and has a limited presence on social platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook. However, she's engaged in other ways. She led the development of what IBM calls a "system of engagement"-including arguably the most liberal social business policy in the corporate world. And she's on the IBM Connections platform, IBM's internal social networking tools, every week, getting feedback, responding to comments, and connecting with employees.

What do you think the impact will be as digital natives obtain leadership positions? Will they have an advantage over older generations?

Younger workers tend to be comfortable with digital media for personal uses, but they don't know how to use the tools in a corporate setting as leaders. There's a difference between expressing yourself as an individual and as an employee trying to accomplish business goals. Even though many organizations look to Millennials to take the lead on digital, they're still learning how to be leaders. And so I think the challenges are still going to be there because it's easier to teach a leader how to use digital tools than to teach someone who knows how to use digital tools to be a leader.