During a childhood in which she felt she was a living, breathing disruption, Charlene Li learned important lessons in leadership. Now she’s spreading that message far and wide.
How is it that some leaders and organisations can thrive in a disruptive environment, while others are crippled by the thought of having to do things differently?
While change-resistant individuals and organisations might have once been nothing more than an inconvenient barrier to growth and progress, the dial was moved into much more critical territory last year. Not adopting new, agile approaches to work meant leaders were staring down the barrel of a bleak future.
The 2020 sentiment became ‘embrace change or perish’.
Teaching people in positions of organisational influence how to champion disruptive leadership is a passion for Charlene Li, senior fellow at Altimeter, entrepreneur, coach, advisor and New York Times best-selling author.
“I want to help leaders, managers and HR professionals to understand that disruption can be something you thrive with,” says Li, who is headlining at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August. “Business has always been disruptive. Change is disruptive. We keep looking for something disruptive to drive growth, but it’s growth that drives disruption.”
Business leaders typically know what they need to do to grow, says Li, but they don’t always do it because it’s going to be disruptive.
“They get to the edge and it all looks too scary [or] too hard,” she says. “Then they back away. But it’s important now, more than ever, for leaders and HR people to develop workforces that are comfortable with change.”
It’s not about policy, it’s not about processes and it’s not about technology. This comfort with disruption is all about relationships between humans, says Li. That’s a lesson she learned a few decades ago at school, when she sensed she was being disruptive simply by being herself.
Stranger in a strange land
Li was born in Detroit to Chinese parents, first-generation immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong. In her family’s suburb on the outskirts of the city, she was surrounded by Italians, Poles and Irish families. Hers was the only family of Asian ethnicity.
Chinese was her first language at home, so English was her second language at school. Add to that the fact that her father was a paediatrician and several children from school were his patients, and it meant she always had to be well-behaved and well-dressed, representing her father’s trusted role in the community.
“Just being who I am was a disruption. I always had to work harder and be nicer. I was a woman of colour in a community that didn’t know what to do with me.”
This experience of growing up as an outsider influenced her career.
“Everyone in my family is a doctor or an engineer or something else to do with STEM,” she says. “I love STEM. I thought I might go on to be a doctor, too. Then in school I wanted to go into business. My father sat me down and said, ‘You realise there’s nobody who looks like you in business?’
“And there really was nobody. Well, there was Elaine Chao, who was a glorious Taiwanese/American woman working in the Bush administration, and that was it. There were no other role models.
“But my parents also gave me unconditional love and the belief that I would be successful. While they were very worried, I assured them I would work hard, and therefore I would always have a roof over my head and food on my table.”
Li had always harboured a passion for leadership. She was an active student in extracurriculars and did a lot of leadership roles in high school and college.
“I just felt [business] was my calling.”
Look into the future
In describing the inherently secure nature of her future career, Li was helping her parents envision her future; she was engaging them in a positive way in her journey.
She showed them a clear image of the destination, of who and what she’d like to become. With a good understanding and appreciation of their daughter’s motivations and purpose, they threw their support behind her and did all they could to support and assist her on that journey.
Li suggests organisational leaders take a similar approach with their stakeholders as she did with her parents. If you draw a clear picture of the destination you’d like to reach and, importantly, explain the purpose of the business and its change journey, your team is more likely to be engaged and brought into the change mission. They will become active participants in the journey.
“Relationships are built on communication,” says Li. “We feel disrupted when our relationships are torn apart, but we feel capable, safe and strong, and able to face any challenge, when our relationships are strong. We often think of communication, disruption and change as a technology problem. But it’s not. It’s a people and relationship problem.”
Asked about the role she plays in helping to solve that problem, Li says, “I help people see the future.”
“That’s vital because if you want to move people out of their comfort zone and on a potentially treacherous journey, without being completely sure that it’s going to result in a great outcome, they’ve got to feel they’re moving towards something that’s worth it.”
Leaders must not only paint a picture of what the future looks like, but also of the people who are going to be impacted positively by the change – the future customers.
HR’s role in disruption
If an organisation is going through a strategic pivot to meet the needs of its future customers, HR must plan to staff the business with the right type of people to help the business get there, and to best satisfy those customers once the journey is over.
In other words, what are the skills and capabilities the business needs to invest in today to ensure future capability and success?
“I can’t tell you how many times I hear from HR that they know this has to happen. But until that role opens up, they’re not going to start looking for that person,” says Li.
This won’t help an organisation to operate in an agile or nimble way – employers need to cast their eyes forward.
“Strategically thinking [you need to say to yourself], ‘I know we’re going to have to hire this person in six months, but I need to start cultivating relationships with people who could fill that role right now.’
Li says you need to be aware that you do the work you do because you know once you can see and feel the future, you can share it.
“Until you truly believe that future vision is one worth working towards, you won’t even begin to engage in how you go about it.”
That’s where purpose comes in.
“I was at a cocktail party before the pandemic and a woman asked me, ‘How do you serve the world? That question rocked my world! Ever since then, I have woken up every morning and known how I am going to serve the world.
“It’s very personal, and for me it’s about helping as many people as possible to thrive with disruption.”
This is Li’s MO now, to inspire leaders to crave disruption and understand how to use it to their advantage.
Li says that, in order for organisational change to stick, people need to be aware of their higher purpose. How do they get their message across to everybody in the business? How do they make the future come true, even though it might mean having to make tough decisions today? How do they ensure everybody is comfortable with disruption?
For positive future change, people must accept that some things must be sacrificed or left behind.
It’s the same challenge Li’s parents faced when she announced she was seeking a career outside of STEM – they had to leave behind their hopes of their daughter becoming a doctor or engineer. And, of course, leaders face a very similar challenge when they decide to take their organisation in a new direction.
“If the future vision is made clear, and if the impact it’s going to make on the world is clear, then the purpose is clear, too. Passion will never carry you through. In fact, I regularly tell graduates that following their passion is a terrible idea because at some point it gets really hard and passion will not be enough.
“What is required to carry you through is purpose. A business can be purposefully disruptive in so many different ways and in so many directions. And it’s more important now because employees and customers are so much more aware of purpose in businesses they deal with. Everything is much more interconnected, which is why it feels as if it’s happening a lot faster – because it is!”
Charlene Li will share her disruptive mindset at AHRI’s virtual convention TRANSFORM 2021 next month.
Registrations close 9 August.