Do Leadership and Social Media Go Hand in Hand?

Pete Blackshaw Reviews Charlene Li's New Book, 'Open Leadership'

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
One thing I've always admired about Charlene Li is her street cred. She consistently walks the talk. She blogs, she podcasts, she tweets and she "earns" no shortage of credibility in the form of followers, friends, brand advocates and other forms of social-media currency. And she's done this for a very long time, starting with Forrester and now as founder of business consultancy Altimeter Group.

Even in the process of naming her new book, she instinctively leaned on the efficiency-upside of crowdsourcing to the tune of hundreds of concepts. The top vote-getter: "Open Leadership."

Essentially about "how leaders must let go to succeed," this Wiley-published book is an important, perhaps urgent, read, especially if you're serious about moving social media up the enterprise value chain. Part social-media primer, part execution guide and part leadership compass, the book is a smart read for anyone looking navigate the choppy, rarely predictable waters of business change.

Billed as a "next step resource that shows leaders how to tap into the power of the social technology revolution and use social media to be 'open' while maintaining control," the book is packed with frameworks, to-do-checklists and case studies, a refreshing number of which fall off the grid of the "usual suspects" we tend to beat to death in marketing circles. Indeed, her second chapter kicks off with Li on the USS Nimitz, reflecting on the tension between military "command and control" and her open principles.

Li argues that social media-enabled services and sites can "improve efficiency, communication and decision-making for leaders and their organizations." The book is less a sequential follow-up to her impressive "Groundswell" collaboration with former Forrester colleague Josh Bernoff than a more forceful and practical reinforcement of many of the same themes, albeit with a special emphasis on mission-critical leadership skills. Key ingredients of "open leadership" success, Li suggests, include respecting employee and customer power, sharing constantly to build trust, nurturing curiosity and humility, holding openness accountable, and (are we ready for this everyone?) forgiving failure.

While a bit top-heavy with case references to Cisco, Dell and Best Buy -- and tad light among CPG companies -- she arms the reader with no shortage of ammo to advance a change agenda.

Importantly, Li aggressively takes off the table all our lame excuses for not having a credible "ROI" strategy for social media. She does acknowledges upfront that the "difficulty with today's new social technologies -- like Facebook, blogs, discussion forums and Twitter -- is that they appear to lack clear, direct benefits compared to more established relationship channels," but she then proceeds to articulate such direct benefits. She offers, for instance, ROI templates like the "New Customer Lifetime Calculation," which smartly marries traditional lifetime value metrics with new value sources, from referrals and insights to ideation and user-contribution systems and support.

She dissects the practical realities of opening large, decentralized, usually siloed organizations, and she fires real warning shots about certain stakeholder groups staying relevant. Market-research departments, she correctly suggests, "most fear losing their status as the providers and guardians of customer and employee insight" -- a point not lost on groups like the Advertising Research Foundation.

Li's book implies that social media is as much about what you do internally as externally. She introduces novel (and memorable) concepts like "sandbox covenants," a metaphor for being flexible within defined boundaries. She also offers really helpful workflow advice (real-time requests, crisis management, internal communications).

True to her consultative roots, she's not shy with quadrant analysis, and she does an especially impressive job with what came across to me as "Myers-Briggs Light" in the form of her Open Leadership Archetype: Cautious Tester, Worried Skeptic, Realistic Optimist and Transparent Evangelist. Having taken her quick assessment, I found myself straddling "realistic optimist" and "transparent evangelist." But to everyone else, I'm just ENTJ.

On the engagement front, Li isn't shy about reminding organizations that they need to "earn" the right to have a conversation. She nicely covers support issues, highlighting the role of new models like, iRobot and Lithium. She provides ample rationalization (if not stimulus) for listening infrastructure.

While she goes deeper on support than most marketing authors, I do regret her ROI framework angles toward fewer "live" interactions with consumers. I've long believed there's massive upside for brands (in word of mouth, referral value, brand advocacy) in making the investment to actually talk to consumers.

In terms of other opportunities, having worked with many of the brands she cites, I'm not convinced they have all achieved the level of "open" or "social-media" success that the book suggests. Some are there rhetorically, but not truly at the foundation. I was disappointed ethics got only a few paragraphs of attention -- as I think this is the ultimate torture test of any form of leadership. She gives pharma companies better marks than they deserve for proactive adverse-event reporting.

Then there's my "Marketers, Get Back to Boring" critique. Li's book seems to suggest open leadership is dependent on web-centric socialization. Yes, social media greases the skids for all business practices, but I'm not convinced it's a pre-requisite for great leadership. At the end of the day, I wonder if we all just need to re-read what Aristotle taught us about ethos and pathos. Or dive a bit deeper into Harvard Business School professor John Kotter's almost-timeless principles of leadership and change.

Here I think of leaders like John Pepper, former P&G CEO and current chairman of Disney. Infinitely accessible, and "open" in the fullest definition of the word, I'm not sure his "open" attributes need an assist from the web or social media to bring to life what Li is talking about.

In fairness, Li is taking on a really tough subject, riddled with inconsistencies, even blatant disconnects. Just consider Apple computer, a vexing case study Li -- like so many others -- dances around or mostly avoids.

"Given Apple's strategic objectives," she notes, "it doesn't have a driving, compelling need to be open -- at least, as long as it continues to develop world-class products." If this is true, juggernaut Apple is a not-so-small asterisk in her argument. Cisco -- also a creator of great products -- is so open one practically squints. Is closed the new open?

She also makes a forceful argument for having concrete goals upfront. While it's "strategically incorrect" for any ladder-climbing manager to suggest otherwise, I actually think the most breakthrough business transformations flow from the unexpected and unanticipated. The key is to develop flexible -- dare I say "open" -- roadmaps and aggressively process data and feedback along the way.

Nitpicking notwithstanding, this is an important read, and Li's long list of case studies suggests she's a great listener, further bolstering her aforementioned street cred. Importantly, "Open Leadership" is anchored to leadership, and at the end of the day, that's what always moves the needle. Always.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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