Social technology can transform the way you lead

open leadership

Book Review
Open Leadership: How Social Technology can transform the way you lead.
By Charlene Li.
Jossey-Bass, 2010. 290 p.

The world of online social media appeals to many communicators. New tools and toys seem to emerge every month. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other innovations are fun. They have placed more power in the hands of corporate communicators, and in the hands of the publics they need to reach.

Problem is, these innovations challenge traditional communication models, and often make corporate leaders nervous. Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of Groundswell (2008), argues eloquently the benefits of opening up to this new communication world.

In Groundswell, Li explored the growing movement of people using online tools to connect, take charge of their own experience, and get what they need—information, support, ideas, products, and bargaining power—from each other.

In Open Leadership, Li challenges us to recognize that a new generation of workers is coming of age that believes “sharingness” is next to—or more important than—godliness. People inside and outside the organization demand more openness about how an organization makes decisions and operates.

Li coined the term ‘open leadership’ to describe those companies and leaders who have the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control. This book picks up where Groundswell left off, by showing readers just how they can use these new technologies—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yammer, Jive, and new mobile services—to improve efficiency, communication, and decision making for themselves and their organizations.

Li has collected hundreds of corporate social media policies and guidelines. (Psst! Wanna see Hill & Knowlton’s social media policy? It’s on p. 127. Or how the U.S. Air Force handles blog comments? That’s on p. 138).

Based on this research Li offers many case studies describing how companies have implemented social media, their setbacks and mistakes, their accomplishments, and the policy changes they had to make.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, one forward looking employee helped the American Red Cross establish its first social media policy. The project succeeded because she put in place the proper procedures, policies, and guidelines that defined how everyone should and shouldn’t behave online.

The first step in opening up, Li says, is for corporate leaders and communicators to recognize that we are not in control – our customers, employees, and partners are.  It seems counterintuitive, but the act of engaging with people, of accepting that they have power, can actually put us in a position to counter negative behavior.

Li offers case studies of companies including Best Buy, Cisco, Dell, Ford, Mozilla, and Procter & Gamble.  P&G developed a new Web site,, to highlight research topics they wanted to address and to encourage contributions. The goal was to expand beyond the 200 or so internal scientists at P&G to reach an estimated 1.5 million researchers who were working on related, relevant issues.

Executives reluctant to embrace open leadership often ask Li: What’s the Return on Investment? It’s hard to quantify the value of a relationship, Li says, because that value can be tapped in many different ways. Think about the closest relationships you have in your life. How do you measure their value? Even more to the point, how do you realize the value of being in a relationship?

Open leadership requires creating a structure, process, and discipline around openness when there is none, so that employees and customers know what to expect, and how to behave, in a new open environment. Li recommends developing a “sandbox covenant” to govern how you will enter into these new relationships. Li typically sees two types of covenants. (1) social media guidelines for employees and (2) customer-facing guidelines, such as community participation or comment guidelines, as well as disclosure policies and codes of conduct designed to build trust with an audience.

Open leadership is about building a new kind of relationship with your employees, customers, and partners. In any relationship, things go wrong, mistakes are made, ups are followed by downs. The strength of a relationship is not how perfect it is but how resiliently it deals with the unavoidable downs.


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