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My TED Talk: Leading in the Digital Era

Charlene Li

CharleneLi_TED_My TED Talk Leading in the Digital Era

I crossed an item off my bucket list when I gave a TED Talk at TED@IBM on Sept. 23rd. The event was part of the new TED Institute, which partners with companies to create TED-curated events.

The title of my talk was “Giving Up Control: Leading in the Digital Era”. One key data point from Gallup that continues to astound me is that worldwide only 13% of people are engaged in their work. It’s higher in the US, standing at 30% but that’s still terrible!

I believe that a big reason for this is that we don’t give enough autonomy to, and respect the growing agency of our employees, especially for the Millennials who crave purpose and meaning in their work. The hierarchies that exist in our organizations were designed for a bygone era where efficiency and scale were paramount. But today, speed, innovation, and creativity are the sources of competitive advantage.

Companies have been responding, deploying collaboration platforms and enterprise social networks to connect people throughout the organization. Shrinking the distance between previously siloed departments, or between executives and the front lines sounds great — unless you’re a middle manager.

The biggest problem leaders face in the digital era is that power and influence are being decoupled from titles and organizational structure. So how can you be an effective leader? Here are the three things that organizations can do:

  1. Create a Culture of Sharing. Instead of hoarding information to be powerful, leaders have to become facilitators who accelerate the sharing of information across a networked organization.
  2. Encourage the Practice of “Followership”. The size and quality of your network, not your title, determines how much power and influence you have, and thus, how much you can get done. If employees could build their “followership” across the organization and even outside the organization, then even if their titles or jobs changed, they could still be highly effective. This creates tremendous security that allows these managers to make tough decisions that might otherwise jeopardize their livelihood.
  3. Ensure Networks are being used to Make Meaningful Decisions. People are smart — they won’t devote time to engaging unless they know it’s going to make a difference. The biggest mistake I’ve seen organizations do when trying to transition into the digital era is to use these new tools to create the equivalent of a digital water cooler — talking rather than getting work done. No wonder they don’t last! Get leaders to pay attention, make key decisions on these networks and people will come.

What each of these has in common is the need to give up control. In the talk, I shared the journey I’m going through as the parent of teenagers, as they push for greater autonomy and trust to make their own decisions. In our work, if we truly want to have an engaged workforce, then we’re going to have to lead differently, and establish a new kind of relationship and trust that’s created and deepened with these digital tools.

I’ve embedded the slides and script of my talk below. In a few weeks, the video of my talk will be available and I’ll embed that here as well. I hope you find these materials helpful in your journey to become a leader in the digital era.

TED Talk Script: “Giving Up Control – Leading in the Digital Era” from Charlene Li