Creating An Better Customer Relationship Through “Open Leadership”

Charlene Li's Open Leadership BookAre you looking to get into social media? Have you ever encountered in your work a struggle to get your boss to buy into a program that you know will work, but have to fight tooth and nails just to get them to simply understand what’s being said? If so, then I suggest you read Open Leadership by Charlene Li (@charleneli) – it’ll transform the way you AND your boss can view how social technology can transform the way business is done.

After the success of her last book Groundswell that she wrote along with Josh Bernoff, Li is back at it again with Open Leadership. The goal of this book is not to tell you the benefits about Twitter, Facebook or any specific social network, but rather helping you understand the relationship that social media has imposed on the way we do business. And just like in Groundswell, Open Leadership will tell you all about how to do business from a more strategic level. In both books written by Charlene Li, what I’ve discovered is that she’s not interested in writing a “self-help” type book to illustrate what you can do with Twitter to better communicate with your customers. Rather, she’s more interested in helping to change the paradigm to which businesses have been accustomed to for a very long time. Social media has allowed us, the consumer, to simply tell businesses like Wal-Mart, Dell, Microsoft and many of the big brands in the world that we no longer accept “business as usual”. Change the way you do business or suffer the consequences.

It’s just not the title of the book

What exactly is open leadership? It’s not that your employees think you won’t make any decisions. Rather, it’s the empowerment the company gives to its customers. We all have heard about the stories behind what social media has done for customers who strike against a brand for bad customer service or for apparently/allegedly “not listening”. Think about what Yelp has done for small and local businesses? Prior to social media, businesses benefited more from the Internet not giving customers a voice. If your food was bad, what could you do about it? Tell your friends and family members and then hope it will spread virally. Now, your message can not only be posted onto Yelp – where thousands of people (if not millions) will see your bad review of that restaurant or business, but also it can be posted on other social networks. You are no longer in control. In fact, Li says that in Chapter 1 of her book: it’s inevitable. And to help you get this point, she starts off with an impact:

You may not know who Dave Carroll (@davecarroll) is, but United Airlines wishes it had never heard of him.

One March day not long ago, Carroll looked out of his airplane seat window and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Out on the tarmac of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, he saw baggage handlers tossing suitcases, sometimes dropping them on the ground. Among the items were guitar cases…and realized that these were his guitars being thrown back and forth.

I don’t need to complete the story because you might know what happens, but Carroll’s experience and his response shows us the power that customers have and how companies who fail to let embrace this change and social opportunity will be doomed to ridicule. Throughout Li’s book, there are countless examples, some that you may have read in other social communication books like Putting the Public Back into Public Relations, Engage, Trust Agents, etc. and even some new ones that you might not have heard from. This is not a book that preaches to you. On the contrary, it offers you a different way of thinking while supporting itself with real company examples that you can relate to as a business owner or stakeholder.

More substance and less fluff

Now I know what you must be saying…what could you possibly learn from Open Leadership that you haven’t heard elsewhere on the blogs and in similar books. Well it’s not about transparency or that you should “be authentic”, but you do gain a new way of thinking about what it truly means to be a leader and relinquish control which she highlights in five new rules:

  1. Respect that your customers and employees have power.
  2. Share constantly to build trust.
  3. Nurture curiosity and humility.
  4. Hold openness accountable.
  5. Forgive failure.

These five rules are the breadth of what Open Leadership is all about. And remember how I said that it’s not a preachy book? Li outlines at the end of the chapters an “action plan” that you, as a leader, can look at and see if those steps are something you can take within your very own organization to help be more open.

To start off with being open, the question that you, as a business leader and stakeholder, have to ask yourself is whether or not you really understand what it means to be open. There are vague definitions to what being “open” truly is and all that we know as this point (without really reading the book) is that you encourage your executive team to release some (or all) control and allow your employees to interact with its customers. But before anything else can be done, the company must conduct what Li calls the “Openness Audit” – which will provide you a score on how well you’re currently sharing information across six main areas: explaining, updating, conversing, open mic, crowdsourcing and platforms.

And as you might expect from someone in an analyst background, no book would be complete without statistics and numbers that you can easily take with you to justify your decisions to your stakeholders. A great benefit of reading Open Leadership is that Li has mapped out actual calculations on the benefits an average company would get through traditional means of product learning (focus groups, developing strategic goals, etc.) versus through social media (buzz monitoring, community development, etc.). Also, she’s looks at the benefits of dialog using the same two methods along with many other issues.

In the aftermath of conducting an openness audit, Charlene Li introduces what she calls the organizational sandbox. It’s a metaphor, but a strong one – it’s a safe place to play in where you are free to do your activity, but at the same time it’s finite. There are rules and policies in place to force you to play nicely with each other. This is not one of those “one-size fits all” type metaphors. Each organization’s sandbox is very different and can differ in size – and they’ll have their own policies too…these are set in place based on your results from the openness audit, so it’s really important for you to make sure that this is done before you do anything else.

There are many other helpful tips and strategic concepts that you will find very interesting and informative in the later chapters that I believe companies will leverage to help them become better responsive with their customers.

Who should read this book?

Everyone should read this book, but this is made especially for those who hold an executive role in their company or are in a position of leadership where you have the power to shape the future of a company and are need of understanding how all this new technology will help chart the next course of business communication for your brand. If you’re more concerned with the strategic implementation of how your style of leadership could benefit or hinder your customer service or feel a need to better understand how technology can be used effectively to “build a better mousetrap”, then I suggest you pick up Open Leadership and find out.

Open Leadership is available in stores or on Amazon starting on May 24, 2010 and more information about Charlene Li’s book can be found at

Disclosure: I received Open Leadership as a review copy from Charlene Li, but was not instructed nor told what to write regarding my review or feedback of the book. The words and opinions listed in this post are my own.

Ken Yeung (A) Avatar

About the Author

One response to “Creating An Better Customer Relationship Through “Open Leadership””

  1. Carlene Schnitzer Avatar

    Leadership is a skill that most people should learn. It’s the best way of handling a team and making them follow. I can see these days that there are also many new types! Leaders should also know how to take care of their members. It’s also like a business handling its customers, so it’s good to manage everyone well.

Leave a Reply