Book Review: “The Engaged Leader” by Charlene Li

Posted: June 22, 2015 in Book Reviews
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EngagedLeaderI have long appreciated the research and insights of Charlene Li and all who are connected with Altimeter Group. They have an excellent history of producing substantive content based on thorough industry research and presenting it effectively via print, webinars, conferences, etc. So it is no surprise that Li, the founder and CEO of Altimeter Group, has done this again with her latest book, The Engaged leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation. Some of her previous books include Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform How You Lead and the best-selling Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed By Social Technologies, co-authored with Josh Bernoff.

In her latest book, The Engaged Leader, Li coaches leaders through developing a strategy for engaging with others digitally inside and outside the organizations they lead. This small paperback of barely 100 pages is filled with helpful examples from C-suites around the globe where leaders understand the importance of digital leadership – leaders who demonstrate willingness to transform their own behaviors in order to positively transform the organizations they lead.

The four brief but meaty chapters are:

  • Listen at Scale
  • Share to Shape
  • Engage to Transform
  • Transform the Organization

The author recognizes that not all leaders are at the same point in their digital transformation journey, and that such a journey may take a while – even years. She documents such journeys in her many examples. The transformation must occur if leaders and their organizations are to position themselves for future success. Through implementing three main actions – listen, share and engage – leaders have the opportunity to transform their leadership and their impact in a digitally connected world. Such transformation won’t happen automatically, even after reading this excellent book. There must be a plan. To that end, she provides a handy worksheet for download that the book uses throughout its chapters to build a sample plan for leader engagement in support of a leader’s and organization’s goals.

To mention just a bit of the chapters’ primary points, to listen at scale means to “listen with your eyes to many people all at once, anytime, and from anyplace” (p. 22). No longer must leaders rely only on a select group of direct reports through whom the content of information is filtered. Leaders can take advantage of the access they have through digital/social channels to actually hear from their audience directly (or at least from those who are doing the listening at scale). This further presents opportunities to build relationships with constituents and to demonstrate constancy in the listening process. Li presents suggestions on the art and science of listening, and she ends the listening chapter (as well as the share and engage chapters) with helpful questions to get started. Why listen? Listening at scale “enables leaders to determine what ideas, information, or actions will inspire followership” (p. 36).

Once listening, leaders can then share in strategic ways to shape relationships and the actions of followers. This leads to greater power and influence by the leader. Such sharing needs to be fast, frequent and informal – very different than the C-suite’s traditional methods of talking at people, infrequent reporting, and formal, polished sharing. Li provides tips on the art and science of sharing. She offers the wise caveat that “authenticity will always be in the eye of the beholder” (p. 53), and that leaders may have to develop even tougher skin than usual during the digital transformation journey as they learn new ways of communicating.

In the engage to transform chapter, Li states that “digital engagement is a complete paradigm shift” and that it “is still a stretch for most leaders because it alters how they feel about themselves and how they normally act and it changes their relationships with followers” (p. 59). She uses the terms distance, direction and frequency to explain the interrelated perspectives at play. Setting goals, choosing the right type of engagement and putting controls in place are some of the pieces of the engagement puzzle Li explains. (I have to admit I’m partial to this chapter since it is where my CEO at Humana, Bruce Broussard, is used as an example of an engaged leader via our employee’s enterprise social network, Buzz. Full disclosure: I was the contact for the author for the information included in this chapter regarding Broussard’s digital engagement inside our company.)

The potential impact of learning to listen, share and engage is that the leader has the best opportunity to transform the organization. Li relates the change process the leader may experience along the way as very similar to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, modifying them slightly into only four stages in this process: denial, bargaining, acceptance, and transformation. It is in this section where Li addresses the reality of middle management’s role (which is not always helpful) in such a transformation process, and how to bring them along in the right direction.

Don’t think that embarking on the journey necessarily involves mass quantities of time from leaders who are already extremely busy. Li suggests starting in week one with just ten minutes per day. In the book’s conclusion, she writes “so start slowly, but start now” (p. 94).

It is impossible for the reader of The Engaged Leader to be exposed to as many examples of leader engagement as this book provides without having numerous ideas spawned regarding ones own situation. Surely engaged leaders with an openness to personal digital transformation will have no shortage of takeaways to move forward in their own journey after reading the book. I highly recommend it not only for leaders but for others who are connected with leaders and for those who play some role in leader communications.

Transforming into a digitally engaged leader is a tremendous opportunity today. The reach and impact a leader can have via social channels is practically unlimited. A few rare leaders may be so inclined and skilled as to make the journey without the nudging and guidance of others, but most will need a helping hand to take the right path. This is where Charlene Li’s small but powerful, insightful, research-based book can make a huge difference. Get a copy and read it soon.

Comments
  1. Jeff: Thanks for the kind words and detailed review, and especially for your help in including the great example of Bruce Broussard at Humana.

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