"Most organsations don't have a culture of sharing": Q&A with Charlene Li

Thursday 16th May 2019

Charlene Li

In the lead-up to the annual World Business Forum to be held in Sydney this month, Industry Moves talks to featured speaker, Charlene Li. As founder and CEO of Altimeter Group and an expert on social media and technologies, Charlene tells Industry Moves about the importance of sharing in the digital age and the metamorphosis required to be a true digital leader. She also shares a little about her upbringing and how it shaped her drive, as well as a story that proves her interest in 'disruption' is not just limited to technology.

"When a leader embraces digital, they approach leadership from a different place."

What do you mean by ‘the culture of sharing’ and why is this important for organisations in the digital age?

For most of our professional lives, we’ve been told not to share, that sharing is dangerous, that you lose power if you give up too much information. But in the digital age, sharing is not only easy, it’s expected and required to move faster in pursuit of constantly changing customers. Most organisations don’t have a culture of sharing – a belief that sharing is good backed up by organisational structures, process, and “lore” to create sharing behaviours.

Your most recent book, ‘The Engaged Leader’, talks about the ‘metamorphosis’ that is required to be a true digital leader. Can you tell us a little about this?

When a leader embraces digital, they approach leadership from a different place. They still do the things that great leaders do – they listen, share, and engage. But in a digital ecosystem, these behaviours are radically different. You can listen at scale, you can share to shape actions, and you engage digitally to transform relationships. Metamorphosis isn’t easy because you have to rethink the way you lead. But at the core, you are the same leader with the same rich experiences and wisdom but now applied with greater scale and impact because of digital.

"In the digital age, sharing is not only easy, it’s expected."

Which leaders in business have inspired you, and why?

One of my favourite leaders is David Thodey, the former CEO of Telstra. When he discovered the power of digital engagement, he dove head first into it. An anthropologist in background, Thodey understood how digital engagement and collaboration could shift culture and relationships with employees and drive better customer engagement. He led the digital transformation of Telstra at a crucial time with heart, setting the example from the top of what it means to be a leader in the digital era.

What set you on your particular career path?

I graduated from Harvard Business School in 1993 and went to work for a newspaper company. Even back then, it was an odd move – my classmates thought I was insane. But I could see that the Internet was going to be a force and wanted to be part of it. I joined the San Jose Mercury News, based in the middle of Silicon Valley and had front row seats to the birth of the Internet. I got my hands dirty, learning what worked and didn’t work when it came to transformation of an established business that was being disrupted by technology. After a few years, I transitioned from managing digital transformation to analysing it, and have bounced back and forth between feeding these two sides of my business passions – starting and running disruptive businesses while researching and writing about disruption.

"I joined the San Jose Mercury News, based in the middle of Silicon Valley and had front row seats to the birth of the Internet."

You have travelled extensively with your speaking engagements, have you a favourite destination?

One of my favourite places is Istanbul, partly because I travelled there with my daughter. We took a few days to really explore the city and even took a ferry ride across the Bosphorus Straight so that she could “be in Asia”, even though it was for 15 minutes! I was also astonished to learn how digitally connected the Turkish people are and enjoyed learning how different and similar Turkish digital consumers are compared to the rest of the world.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in and around Detroit, Michigan with very few Asians in my community. From an early age, I was used to being the “only” in my classroom and in my neighbourhood. I think that prepared me to be comfortable pushing into new realms where there was no one who looked like me. I pursued a career in business when there were virtually no role models of Asian American women leaders. As the American-born daughter of two immigrants, I have the utmost admiration for my parents who left the comfort of their family, home, and country determined to integrate and be a part of their new country. Their humility, hard-work, and deep sense of gratitude for the simple things in life grounds me even today.

"I can guarantee you that [digital transformation will] be a difficult journey without a clear map."

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

I have a cat because my work and travel schedule make it infeasible to have a dog. But I wanted a dog so I started trying to train my cat to do simple tricks like sit, ignoring the conventional wisdom that you can’t train cats. After two years, my cat can now sit, give me a high five, lie down, turn circles (in both directions), and jump through a hoop. I’m currently teaching him to find treats hidden underneath a cup. Forget about teaching an old dog new tricks – I’m taking the unthinkable disruptive course of teaching my cat tricks!

What would you most like the audience take away from your upcoming talk at World Business Forum, Sydney?

We think that digital transformation is all about technology. While digital technology is important, the hard part is the “transformation” because at the core, digital changes the power dynamic in relationships with customers, within organisations, and throughout an ecosystem. We want digital transformation to be easy, to be straight forward – and I can guarantee you that it will instead be a difficult journey without a clear map. The one thing I want people to take away is this is not about technology and instead to focus on the relationships that are being transformed. It’s about the relationships and the more you focus on you and the relationships you are in, the better you will fare in your transformation.

World Business Forum Want to hear more from Charlene Li? Click here for details about his upcoming presentation at this year's World Business Forum, to be held on May 28 & 29 in Sydney. Industry Moves' readers can use promo code IM10 when purchasing tickets to receive a 10% discount.
Industry Moves is a proud supporting partner of the event.

Back to Insights