This story is from the 2016 Access 25: How Mobility is Reshaping the Globe. Explore more from this issue

Working Those Connections

Noted digital researcher Charlene Li says connectivity can make a profound impact on organizational culture and performance.

What’s your Connected Quotient? That question has been on Charlene Li’s mind of late. Li, a New York Times best-selling author and founder of Altimeter, a Prophet company (a San Francisco research and consulting firm), has a hypothesis: “Employees perform at higher levels if they’re better connected with each other.”

Li adds that the process often starts at the top, noting that digital channels provide powerful opportunities for leaders to engage with members of their own workforces, many of whom can be spread out across the globe.

We sat down recently with Li for insight on how digital connectivity can help companies meet strategic goals and even help cultivate organizational change.

ACCESS: How do you define digital leadership?

Charlene Li: They are people who have harnessed the power of digital, social and mobile technology to accomplish their leadership goals. We can’t always be next to the people we collaborate with across the globe anymore. But digital technology helps us bridge the space-time continuum.

ACCESS: What does it take to become an engaged digital leader?

C.L.: There are three things you should do: Listen, share and engage. At a minimum, you should be listening, which doesn’t have to take a lot of time. I know one CEO who sits down every morning with his coffee and reads through the hottest topics on his company’s internal social networks. He also reads through highlights of what people are saying about the company on Twitter. He’s not trying to be all-knowing, but he wants to hear from people. Then he can talk with his executive team about the trending topics.

As it turns out, his company couldn’t pay bonuses one quarter because it had not met its financial goals. A lot employees were extremely upset because they had worked hard. His response was to send out a message on the internal network that essentially said, “We all agreed at the beginning of this quarter that if we don’t meet the numbers, we’re not getting paid. I didn’t receive a bonus either.” That’s a great example of an engaged leader.

ACCESS: Can you give another example of an engaged leader using digital or mobile tools?

C.L.: Ginni Rometty is someone who comes to mind. When she became IBM’s CEO, she made a warm, thoughtful video about the type of company she wanted IBM to become. She invited people to contact her via the video’s comments section. And then she followed up with all of them. She’s kept it up too, regularly participating on intranet discussion boards and online forums. It’s working. Employees feel connected to her, and it’s helping change IBM’s culture.

Rometty realized IBM’s 380,000 employees needed someone they could feel a connection with. She also knew what she was comfortable with and where she could be effective. For example, she has a Twitter account, but she only uses it to listen, never posting on it. At the same time, she’s very active internally. She does internal webcasts, responds to individuals on intranet discussion boards and participates in online discussion forums that are focused around specific issues. She does it on a regular basis, and people feel connected to her. She’s accomplished a lot in two years, and it’s helping change IBM’s culture.

ACCESS: Why does digital engagement work?

C.L.: I ask people to describe the best leader they’ve ever had and how that person made them feel. The answers I most often hear: “I felt validated. I felt listened to. I mattered. I made an impact.” Engaged leaders draw employees into a powerful, give-and-take relationship. It’s not always buddy-buddy, but it’s about validation.

I don’t think digital leadership is different from being a really good leader. You express your goals. You take the time to make sure people are held accountable. You listen to find out where and what the barriers are. You get people the resources they need to succeed.

In other words, all of the qualities that make a great leader offline are the same ones that make a great leader online.

ACCESS: How can leaders foster that engagement?

C.L.: First of all, be very clear about what goals you want to accomplish. And then figure out how listening, sharing and engaging can help you accomplish those goals. Ask your digital team: If I want to listen, can I do it with a digital tool? If I want to share stories with people to generate a specific action, how can I do it in the digital, social and mobile spaces? Your digital team will have a field day with it.

ACCESS: So this is a learnable skill?

C.L.: Yes. But you need to want it. If you have a burning desire to share and help people grow, you’ll engage because you understand what it provides you in return. That’s what makes a great leader.

If you feel listening, sharing and engaging are important, you’ll want to learn how to do so in a digital space. It’s not necessarily about doing anything differently. It’s about reconsidering the mechanism you use.


  1. Excellent article about how to engage the virtual workforce in a more inclusive way. Thank you!

    Terry Styner April 7, 2016

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