Charlene Li on Social technology and Open Leadership: Part 2

Building on Part 1 of my interview with Charlene Li (author of Groundswell and Open Leadership), here is Part Two in which we discuss the persistent issue of how you convince CEOs to use social media and what they can expect from doing it.

SM: How do you answer people that just want to see the profits that social media will bring?

CL:  I can show you how these things can deepen the relationship and improve satisfaction. Maybe not directly to a sale, but I would argue that 80% of what a company does day to day doesn’t lead directly to a sale, but yet you continue to do it because you know it adds value. When you shake hands with a customer face to face it adds value. You can’t quantify how much more value it is, but there is value to it. It’s the same thing here. It’s a virtual relationship you can form in a very competitive marketplace where your competition may or may not be there. Every case study in Open Leadership has value associated with it. Those companies saw value.  Sometimes they could quantify it in very clear dollars and cents, and sometimes it was a little fuzzier, but there was always value.

SM:  So how do get executives to take that leap of faith?

CL:  Executives understand the value of a handshake, but they have never experienced the value of a virtual handshake. Until you experience it, how can you even begin to translate that value back to your shareholders? You can’t. It’s like trying to explain what a really good TV ad does to somebody. You can’t explain it, you show it to them so they can experience the same emotion. Very few people approve ads based on the ROI of that ad. This is all about you being seasoned and understanding how all these things add value and that there is no substitute to seeing and experiencing for yourself.

SM: How do you convince an executive as to why they need to be authentic?

CL: The authentic part is a necessity now because if you go out there and are inauthentic, the question becomes, do you go out there at all? The question becomes how do I go out there in an authentic way that will actually add value to me and the organization? The struggle is not necessarily whether or not you should be authentic at all, but how authentic you should be. In the age of Wikileaks I would point out that the biggest fear that companies have is that their customers might say something bad or that their employees can’t be trusted to be responsible out there. But every single one of your employees can say something bad about you already. Nothing is stopping them from going onto Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter and saying something bad about the company.

SM: Does open leadership mean they now need to align who they say they are and what they do?

CL:  Yes it does. I would say it’s not so much open leadership as it is the environment. Whether they choose to open up and be authentic or not, the marketplace and environment will expose the inconsistencies between what they say and what they do. Anytime there is that inconsistency they will be called on it because the customers will see it, the trust won’t be there, and the brand promise isn’t actually fulfilled and that erodes value. So they will call you on it or they won’t buy from you. Either way it’s bad for the company. The open leadership part comes when you acknowledge there is a discrepancy and you decide to do something about it. Authenticity is not something you are, it is something that is perceived.  You can be as authentic as you think you are, but if it isn’t perceived as being authentic that is where the gap forms.

SM: How do you rationalize good brands that do bad or bad brands that do good? Is the issue of accountability black and white?

CL: I think of it in the same way that nobody is perfect, nor is anybody completely evil. What you see now, which is very gratifying to me as somebody coming out of marketing communications, are companies seeing CSR not as a PR thing but as something that is imbued throughout the entire organization. They’re truly living that. Some people just use it as window dressing, but at the same time, at least they’re trying.

SM: Could you characterize this corporate leader of the future?

CL: I would say that the toughest thing a leader has to do isn’t to set the direction, but to convince people to follow them in that direction. And the only way to do that is to repeat that direction over and over again until people are absolutely sick of you. I do believe the way that a leader will have to do this in the future is to use these new tools, these new communication channels to establish new types of relationships. It is something they will have to master. This is not just a CEO, this is every leader who is going to have to develop relationships through these channels.

SM: And to non-believer of social technology, what would you say?

CL: Go for it. Stay in the old way of doing things. Let your competition come in and close those relationships. You can choose not to engage. That’s your prerogative. I’m not going to force you into it if you’re going to be miserable. But if you are going to be an effective leader and the people who you are expecting to follow you want to engage in this way, are you going to force them to work and communicate in a way they don’t prefer? If that’s the case, a customer will go to somebody else who will talk to them the way they want. It’s a mindset that’s going to change. If you’re from this generation but have never had to do this in the past, it is really hard to open yourself in this way. But we have to get used to new things all the time, and this is no different than using email or even caller ID as a new way of doing things. I think the most dangerous thing you can do is to sit, worry and do nothing.

Thanks so much to Charlene for the inspoiration of Groundswell, Open Leadership and for sharing these thoughts. You can follow Charlene on twitter here, subscribe to here blog here, and order Open Leadership here.

Do you think your CEO can and will embrace leadership? If not, why?