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Script of TED Talk given by Charlene Li at TED@IBM on September 23, 2014.

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TED Talk Script: "Giving Up Control - Leading in the Digital Era"

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    charlene li

    Charlene Li

    Version 7

    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

    Francisco, CA.

    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

    your own.”

    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.


    charlene li to do this those employees need

    Charlene Li

    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

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    charlene li mission depended on people being able

    Charlene Li

    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

    Meaningful Decisions.

    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

    get traction.

    I’ve just described three ways to lead in the digital era. But changing organizations

    through sharing, followership and networking does not happen overnight.

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    charlene li what each of these has in common

    Charlene Li

    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

    go of.

    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.

    Thank you.

    Version 7