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Script of TED Talk given by Charlene Li at TED@IBM on September 23, 2014.
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Giving Up Control: Leading in the Digital Era
Script for TED Talk given by Charlene Li at TED@IBM on September 23, 2014 in San
What does it mean to be a leader in the digital era? And I mean a leader in all aspects
of our lives — at work, in our communities, and in our homes. This is not a light
question. This is an urgent issue.
Research from Gallup shows that worldwide, amazingly, only 13% of people are
engaged in their work. And, despite companies’ best efforts to address this problem,
that number has barely budged over the past decade. This is also an issue in our
This is what engagement looks like in my household. My teenagers are TOTALLY
engaged - with their devices, with their friends, and with their worlds. But not with
As the parent, I am a distraction, an annoyance when I try to get them to do the
things that I want them to do. If you’re not a parent, you likely remember what it
was like to be a teen yourself – and the annoyance you felt at having parents tell you
how to drive, dress, or date.
But at some point, parents have to trust their teenagers. People who successfully
parent teens into adulthood eventually tell them, “I know you can do this now on
It’s time for us to learn how do this at work as well.
Hierarchies, which exist in most organizations, were developed at the dawn of the
industrial revolution to create efficiency and scale.
Hierarchies work great if you manufacture widgets, where the information and
expertise needed to make decisions reside only at the top. But in our modern,
digitally-connected world, the need for efficiency pales against the need for speed,
innovation, and change. The people who have to respond quickly to change live at
the edges and bottom of the organization.
Leaders today need to trust that those employees will exercise good judgment when
making decisions that in the past would have been sent “up the ladder” for someone
else to decide.
To do this, those employees need to have the ability to have two-way non-
hierarchical conversation across the organization so that they have the information
needed to make decisions and take action.
This is not a future, utopian world — it is one that already exists today.
An example of this is the restaurant chain Red Robin has a very digital-savvy
employee base because 87% of them are Millennials. When they launched a new
menu item called the Pig Out Style Burger, restaurant servers posted customer
feedback on the company’s internal social network –and it wasn’t all good.
Executives quickly realized that they had to change the recipe and worked with
those employees to figure out what to do. The result –suggestions went from
employees to the test kitchens at headquarters and back into the field in only 30
days — compared to 6-12 months it would have normally taken. Red Robin realized
that employee engagement wasn’t about employees talking with each other but
rather that they were heard and that their voices made a difference.
But there’s a big problem. Managers who sit between top leaders and the front lines
absolutely abhor this new openness. They see executives going around them to talk
to their direct reports. And they fight these changes tooth and nail because they feel
they are losing control.
While these middle managers are often an obstacle to change, they are also a crucial
part of the solution. The key is to help them realize the fallacy of control and to show
them how they can be successful leaders in a networked organization.
I’ve spent a lot of time researching and thinking about this problem. And I’ve
identified three things that organizations can do to help leaders through this
The first is to Create a Culture of Sharing.
In hierarchies, each layer is designed to filter information up and push decisions
down. We were taught that to be successful, we had to hoard information. But in a
networked organization, just the opposite is true. Middle managers become
facilitators, who can accelerate the spread of information and decision-making.
The best example I’ve ever seen of this was on the US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS
Nimitz. In a radical act of transparency, the Navy invited 16 bloggers to spend 24
hours onboard. I was fortunate to be one of those people.
Once on board, the captain encouraged us to ask anyone, anything, at any time. He
knew he couldn’t control what his sailors would say to us, but he had confidence
that they knew what to share and what to keep private. That’s because they had a
culture of sharing in place, and practiced it every day because their lives and their
mission depended on people being able to speak up at the right time. It’s ironic that
one of the models of hierarchy – the military – is also one of the most transparent
How many of you would be comfortable letting an outsider walk around your
organization unescorted, for even an hour? If you have a strong culture of sharing in
place, you would have confidence that this would be fine.
The second thing organizations can do is to encourage the Practice of Followership.
Today, the size and quality of your network – not your title -- determines how much
power and influence you have, and therefore how much you can get done.
One manager I know posted internal video updates about a project that she was
working on, and used those videos to engage people throughout the organization.
She was actively developing relationships and building a network of followers.
When it came time to implement the project, she tapped her Followers for
volunteers who could champion implementation within their own departments.
If middle managers were encouraged to build their Followership, then if their titles
were to change or even disappear, they would nonetheless retain their power,
influence –and effectiveness. This doesn’t just apply to managers. Any employee
who can build a following, can also lead.
The third thing organizations can is to ensure that networks are being used to Make
Employees and managers are smart – they are NOT going to engage unless they
believe it will move the organization and themselves forward. But how can you get
them engaged in the first place? The key is to get decision makers involved
One CEO made the shift by asking employees throughout the company to suggest
processes and technologies that the company should eliminate. This took place on
the company’s internal collaboration platform. With over 800 suggestions
submitted, the CEO started prioritizing which ones to cut, again with input from
employees. When middle managers and executives got wind of these activities they
began to engage. This became a turning point as mangers began to see networks
getting real work done. Using networks to make critical decisions is the only way to
I’ve just described three ways to lead in the digital era. But changing organizations
through sharing, followership and networking does not happen overnight.
What each of these has in common is that we have to give up the traditional notion
that power and influence comes from being in control. That is not an easy idea to let
But just like when you were a teen and your parents had to let go in order for you to
grow, organizations need to empower and engage their employees, let go, and trust
that they will do the right thing. This is the only way that we as leaders will be able
to harness our employees’ passion, their creativity and their energy.