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Open the door to salvation
Published on Friday, 11 Feb 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

Companies around the world have been forced to open up, thanks to new technologies that have enabled employees and customers to share information and voice their views on the internet - any time, any place.

Rather than dreading the inevitable, business leaders should master the art and craft of open leadership in order to succeed in the new age, according to Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform The Way You Lead.

"Open leadership is having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals," writes Li, a business consultant with clients that include Fortune 1000 companies. She is co-author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, named by Amazon as one of the best business books of 2008.

Li believes openness can be achieved through a considered, rigorous strategy, and she has incorporated in her book examples of how organisations have been transformed as a result. These include the Red Cross' use of social media to fix its

dented reputation after being criticised for its response after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, and how Dell's leaders have personally set the tone for the firm to be a "learning organisation".

The author offers action plans and tools, including checklists and assessment tests, to help readers determine how open they are and measure the benefits of being open. There are also some tips on nurturing open leadership, such as how to promote a transparent culture and convince the slow movers to embrace changes, and tackling failure by fostering trust through dialogue, separating the person from the failure and learning from mistakes.

Rather than advocating complete openness, Li stresses the importance of gauging the need to be open.

"As a leader, it is incumbent on you to focus your open strategy on concrete goals," Li writes. "If you don't have a concrete goal for activities, like having a blog or being on Twitter, then please don't start ... [You] may be undermining the enthusiasm to engage openly if these early efforts falter."

Once you have decided to be more open, make sure the people to whom you pass the power will act responsibly. Step by step, Li shows readers how to create social media guidelines for employees. These include explaining why the organisation needs such guidelines, setting the right tone in the statement to employees and spelling out the company's boundaries, such as what information is confidential.

Informative as the book may be, there remain gaps to be filled. In the example where each department in Humana, a Fortune 100 company, had set up its own social media outpost with "no additional funds", readers would perhaps like to know how staff members were persuaded to take on extra work happily.

Meanwhile, assuming that putting employees with different mindsets in a team would encourage them to learn from one another begs the question of how to ensure that the relationship would be constructive rather than tainted with jealousy.

With 310-plus pages, the occasional use of jargon and references to models and theories, the book is certainly not intended as an easy guide to leadership. It will take a dose of patience and concentration aplenty to digest what the author has to offer.

 


FIVE INSIGHTS

  • Your customers and employees have power – respect this fact
  • Share constantly to build trust Nurture curiosity and humility
  • Hold openness accountable
  • Forgive failure

 

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