The first episode of our new video + podcast series, “Everything Thought Leadership,” features Bob Buday’s discussion with bestselling author and thought leader Charlene Li. The video, podcast and an edited transcript are below.
Charlene has been researching and consulting on how digital technology (especially social media) has been reshaping industry after industry for nearly 30 years. She founded the research firm Altimeter Group in 2008 after a nearly 10-year career as a research director and analyst at Forrester Research. She sold Altimeter to the brand strategy consultancy Prophet in 2015 and has worked there since as a senior fellow.
Based in San Francisco, Charlene authored The New York Times’ bestselling book “Open Leadership” and five others. Her ideas, video sessions, writings, presentations, webinars and other activities have gained a large following worldwide (including more than 270,000 LinkedIn). Her focus in the last few years has been on how leaders must deal with social media and other digital technologies that force them to be more transparent, externally and internally. Charlene also was one of 21 thought leaders who endorsed Bob’s book, Competing on Thought Leadership.
Bob interviewed Charlene via Zoom on Dec. 14, 2021. Future episodes of “Everything Thought Leadership” will feature interviews with other well-known business thought leaders, as well as the people who have helped them achieve widespread market recognition.
Listen to the Podcast
Divining the Disruptive Force of Digital Media:
A Conversation with Altimeter Group Founder Charlene Li
Bob: Charlene, it’s great to have you here.
Charlene: Thanks so much for having me.
Bob: When you look back at your illustrious career, what moments are you proud of the most?
Charlene: The moments I’m proud of the most are when people have come up to me and said, “What you said, what you wrote, what I watched was so impactful, it changed the trajectory of my life and my career.” To have people share that — first of all, what an honor. That just makes me even more motivated to do what I do.
Those moments are just so meaningful to me. And they happen all the time, but especially because I’ve had such a long career. [It’s] people coming back [and telling me], “I bet on this early in my career, and I changed my career because of your work.” That is extraordinary to me, that I could have that kind of impact.
Bob: So it’s feeling like you’ve touched people in a way that [many] thought leaders don’t realize – [understanding] the impact [on people] of what they advise.
Charlene: And it’s the reason why we do this work. Because we hope that it actually has some sort of outcome, other than just us kind of putting our words out into the void. To know that it actually makes a difference makes me all the more motivated to do more of it. It feels like a calling. It feels like I’m called to do this work. And I keep doing it, because people keep telling me that it makes a difference.
Early Career Days
Bob: Back when you entered this business, back in 1988 when you joined Monitor Group, they were a thought leadership-based consulting, founded by Harvard Business School strategy professor Michael Porter, Joe Fuller, and others. Is that when you said, “I love this thought leadership stuff. I have to figure out how to do it here or somewhere else”? Did [working at Monitor] set you forward in this profession?
Charlene: No, no, not at all. In fact, I really appreciated the frameworks [that the Monitor founders developed]. I’ve loved thinking that way. I think very strategically in those kind of frameworks and help build some of those.
But the thought of becoming a thought leader, author, analyst, or anything like that wasn’t even close to my mind when I went back to business school. Even when I graduated from business school, I wanted to go out and do things. I wanted to make change happen.
I saw that the internet was going to be really big. This is back in 1993. I decided I wanted to go into newspapers. And so nobody goes to newspapers out of business school. My friends thought I was crazy. But I ended up at the San Jose Mercury News in Silicon Valley, working on the newspaper of tomorrow, selling internet ads with the salespeople, getting my hands dirty. And later on in internet publishing, coding and straight HTML with no cascading style sheets, hundreds of newspapers.
So, I got my hands really dirty, right into the middle of all of this at a very early stage and trying to figure out the business strategies. And it was only after I’d been running it quite successfully. And then I had kids, and I realized I didn’t want to manage things at work anymore. I had babies at home. I didn’t want to go back and manage more “babies” at work. I thought I’d be an analyst for a few years, and just have that freedom. And when I got to Forrester, I realized I loved it, and that I was really good at it.
Bob: So from your days at the Mercury and from helping Fidelity Investments’ Community Newspapers (a Boston-based newspaper chain), did you think that this industry was in trouble, even though at the time it wasn’t? If you looked at the financials of the publicly held newspaper companies at that time, they weren’t in trouble, right?
Charlene: No, everyone who was working on this side of the business knew they were in trouble. When I moved from the San Jose Mercury News back East, the other company I interviewed with was Monster.com and their founder, Jeff Taylor. Everything I did at Community Newspapers was built around creating new revenue streams. We charged for the online classifieds and gave the print away for free. And we were profitable from day one because we did that.
This was because of simple economics: People understood the value of [print journalism] when you give it away, they see the value of that. And they were getting for the online. At the same time, we were establishing a price point for the value of online classifieds — in line with the other competition, but not in line with newspapers at all. Every other newspaper was giving the online away for free and nobody cared. But they weren’t establishing value for that.
Bob: There’s very few exceptions to that at the time. The Wall Street Journal’s first stab at an online edition was paid. But The New York Times, I think, was free. And just about every other newspaper at the time gave away their online edition for free.
Key Factors in Becoming a Digital Thought Leader
Bob: When you look back on your career at Forrester and Altimeter Group, what do you see as the little-known success factors in becoming a thought leader in your domains? Especially things that people who are trying to do something similar in their domains may not realize, because they haven’t been through it.
Charlene: I was at Forrester for almost 10 years. It was a really long time. I went from sizing the internet advertising market, all the way down to like digital transformation, social media, those kinds of topics. Along the way, I covered email marketing, had a nice little stint looking at search engine advertising. And then I fell into the social technology space.
The thing that I kept doing is staying fresh; I kept on top of the trends. I would develop an area, grow it and then literally give it to somebody else who wanted to take it over. So I kept going onto new topics, because you can’t stay on one topic and assume [you] can talk about it forever. The pace of change is happening so quickly.
I think that was one of the keys that we did at Forrester that was different from many other analysts. I kept [exploring] a new area every two years, basically.
Bob: Were you afraid of getting stale by staying on the same problem?
Charlene: I just found that the problems weren’t as interesting. I always constantly look for questions, and then a research thesis that I didn’t know the answer to. For example, what is this thing called “search”? Why is it so interesting?
Everybody felt like it’s so cheap – [why should you] to have to pay for traffic? I’m felt it was the best thing in the world. I was just curious about how that was working because all these small businesses were using it. But the big businesses couldn’t figure out what that was going on with social technologies. It just was a crazy space.
I found it really fascinating. I looked at the power shift that was happening. What’s going on there? What’s going on with leadership? How is that changing, and [how is] the power distance being squeezed? We don’t know what the answer is around those things.
Yeah, I keep running towards topics where it’s not clear what the answer is. Most thought leaders like to talk about things where they know the answer, right? That’s the thing. If [you] have the answer, most likely quite a few other people know the answer. [I like to] go to the places where people don’t know the answers. You don’t even know the answer. And it’s nerve wracking. You wonder if you are going to find the answer.
And this is where the confidence that comes with experience helps you. It tells you, “I’ll figure it out.” Along the way, you might find some other questions that actually are very different.
Charlene’s Topic Focus: What’s Guided Her Course
Bob: The way I look at the world of thought leadership is that [a person or firm] decides on their focus, then they create the content, and then they get the audience to their content — marketing the content. So you have shifted your focus somewhat. But would you say it’s been abrupt shift?
Charlene: it’s very continuous. Again, I started as a technology analyst, looking at the technology, and that has always been the foundation of a lot what I do. But now I rarely talk about very specific technologies. I can dive deep into them.
But my expertise isn’t on helping you choose an email or marketing automation platform. It’s about how you use [such digital platforms] to create capabilities that drive business transformation and engagement with your customers. It’s looking at things on a much more strategic level.
I’ll give an example. My first book “Groundswell” was about how to use social technologies. And then a CEO came up to me and said, “I get it, I need to be authentic and open and transparent. How open do I need to be?” I thought, “That’s a really good question.” And so that became the thesis of my next book, “Open Leadership.”
You can see how that builds and builds on each other. These topics keep raising additional questions with people.
Bob: I think that’s fascinating. In other words, what you didn’t do is jump to a totally disparate topic such as supply chains and technology, which would have been pretty far removed from the world of social media.
Charlene: Yeah. I’ll give you an example of a topic I’m very curious about. It feels, in some ways, like a very big stretch. It’s this whole idea of stakeholder capitalism and stakeholder-based decision making. It’s where it’s no longer just shareholders but your customers and your employees, your communities, the environment, the ecosystem of your supply chain. And how do you decide where to invest in each of them, because it’s a fixed pool of what your assets are, and where you can put your attention.
If you boil it down, it is about the future of capitalism. I like big, huge, scary topics like that. It comes out of my fascination for how [a business] balances customers and employees against the business [financial goals] that it has to meet? How do you put them into context and understand them from a leadership perspective? How do you make the trade-offs?
Bob: Especially against shareholders if it’s a public company, or a private equity-owned firm, whose shareholders are pretty demanding in the short term.
Charlene: It comes from my business transformation and digital transformation work. I’ve been doing that for a decade. The digital transformation touches very strongly into business transformation. So if you’ve got to transform this business, how do you measure the success of that? And if you’re going to invest in customers and in employees, those investments don’t show up on the balance sheet. They don’t show up in your [profit and loss] statement. How do you decide how much to invest? That’s an underlying theme.
I’m really fascinated by the topic, because we all believe that we should be investing in our various stakeholders, not just shareholders. How do you actually do that? It sounds great when you talk about it. But how do you actually do it?
At a company like Walmart, the board comes in and says, “We need to make an investment in, say, sustainability because it’s the right thing to do. So go figure out a plan, and we’ll invest in that.”
How do you make that decision? How do you decide that this is the right amount of investing in this? Because it pays off in the long run? So lots of questions. Those kinds of issues, [for which] there’s no easy answers. That is what’s fascinating for me.
Keeping Her Audience in Mind, Constantly
Bob: What else do you believe has made you very visible and revered in the marketplace? What are the hard lessons that are not evident that maybe people like you don’t like to talk about, and are easy to miss?
Charlene: When people are writing, they often ask “What should I write about? How do I become a thought leader? How do I make sure my thoughts are out there and resonating with people?”
If it’s about you, if it’s about your thoughts and your ideas, it will never resonate. If it’s about how you are helping people, if you’re really clear about who you are helping, and understand that they have pain points and needs, and that you’re writing very specifically to those pain points, you will always resonate.
So the person I’m writing to, her name is Valerie, I have a very clear idea who she is. She’s a woman of color. She works at a financial institution. She’s a VP level, she’s intent on creating change. But this is a large financial institution that doesn’t do change very well. And she’s frustrated. She wants to know how she can move things forward without upsetting the apple cart.
So how do I how do I break through? She says, “How do I keep on top of the trends? How do I become a better leader? How do I understand these technologies?” I’m very clear about what her issues are. And … her frustration with the content that’s out there right now. I’m constantly updating what her needs are, and thinking about where she’s heading. And I’m hoping to meet her on the way on her journey.
Bob: I love that. I’ve worked with a lot of thought leaders over the years and lose touch with their audience after becoming so successful. They start to write for themselves, saying, “I don’t care if anybody will know this term. I’m just going to throw it at them because I’m famous, and people have to listen to me.”
Charlene: It’s funny. One of the things we had as a value at Altimeter was humility. Another analyst that laughed in my face when I told him that [the value of an Altimeter analyst] being humble. The analyst said, “No way.” I said, “No, it’s a core tenet.”
If you think you know all the answers, you’ll never look for the right questions. It was such an important tenet for us at Altimeter and continues to be for me. I am not even close to knowing what the answers are. There are so many questions out there that haven’t been answered yet. Let’s go out there and take a look at them and be willing to be wrong. You must be willing to say, “I don’t know the answer to that. I have some guesses and some opinions. And I’ll share them with you.”
Dealing With the Fears of Fame
Bob: Any other big things you think the person who’s on this journey should keep in mind, ones they may miss simply because very few people talk about them?
Charlene: I think most thought leaders are totally insecure overachievers. We’re insecure, and we want to achieve and achieve. And so perfectionism, imposter syndrome, all of these are in your head.
I learned write down what my fears are, and then ask whether they are real. How would I address it? And then all those days going all the way through the process, and [asking], “Why are you doing this? What’s the benefit of it?”
I was just looking at a sheet for this new course I’m creating. And I just can’t get my act together to go do this. I realize it’s because I’m feeling insecure about putting out a new type of content. Will people like it? Am I pricing it the wrong way? Is it new and interesting? Would anybody show up?
I have to deal with all those insecurities and put them over here. And I just have to keep in mind, who am I writing this for? Who am I creating this for? This will be a benefit for them. And even if it’s not a quote, huge success, I’m going to learn something along the process just by getting it up.
It is better to get this the harder it is to try something new.
Bob: Even after you’ve climbed the mountain you can say, “I’m not at the bottom anymore”? Someone might say, “Charlene, what do you have to worry about?” Right?
Charlene: Here’s what you have to worry about: your brand and your reputation. It takes a lifetime to create it, and in a single moment to lose it. That’s what’s at risk for thought leaders.
If you built this up, you’ve got a couple thousand people who are following you. And then one errant tweet, one misstated sentence can bring all of it down. That’s the kind of world we live in.
Now when you’re out there in public … you realize is that there’s tremendous grace out there. I did a live stream this morning. And Facebook wasn’t working, alarms are going off. Then the stream disappeared completely because my internet went out. I said, “Sorry, folks, I don’t know what’s going on today, but it is what it is. We’re just going do our best.”
And what can you do, right? I started live streaming without any video … and everything that could happen usually does. [But] realizing [the understanding that] your audience gives you, it has so much grace. That has been really helpful.
Frankly, at times when people have come after me — trolls or anything else — my followers, my audience has come to my rescue. They’ve come to defend me and say, “No, leave her alone.” I am so grateful for that. I’m just so incredibly grateful. I feel so lucky to be able to have that dialogue, to have that relationship with people.
The Need for a Thick Skin, Nerves of Steel, and an Ironclad Stomach
Bob: You advise people who aspire to be seen as thought leaders to have a thick skin.
Charlene: Yes, you have to because anybody can comment. I remember when I was at Forrester and I wrote the first analyst blog that they opened up the comments to. I said, “Why wouldn’t I have comments?” [Someone said] “But what if they say something you don’t like?” [I said] “Bring it on. I want to know about it. If they’re saying it, they may as well tell me about it so I can address it.”
You have to have a thick skin and nerves of steel and an ironclad stomach.
The other thing I hear from people oftentimes is this: “Everyone’s really talked about this topic so many times, do I really want to cover it? I need to cover something new. And unless I can find something new, I’m not going to talk about it.”
The difference, though, is you haven’t talked about it. You haven’t brought your perspective, your experiences into that dialogue. And that is valuable. That’s what people want to hear and see, even on the same topic. How do you know until you put it out there?
Bob: There are so many business problems that I think you could go back 100 years in Harvard Business Review and read about. Effective marketing is an old topic that is always ripe for new solutions. So, you know, when I hear people say, “Well, we need to address new business problems., there’s more whitespace there.” But the old problems, if they haven’t gone away completely as problems, they’re ripe for new thinking, new solutions. So why would we abandon those problems?
Charlene: If we knew what the answers were, maybe we’d all be doing them. But it’s not actually quite simple, right? How do you retain employees in the face of the great resignation? Treat them better!
A Focus on Disruptive Leadership
Bob: Let’s talk about your current focus, on leadership of disruptive innovation. Every company is under is in that tent – and not just the media companies trying to deal with Netflix. It could be a chemical company. How did you decide on that topic focus? How did you wander into that territory?
Charlene: I was after I co-wrote “Groundswell” [with Josh Bernoff]. I realized that the No. 1 reason why companies were failing — at dealing with all these changes, with innovation, with technology — was leadership. We were in this old way of thinking about leadership: in the very traditional way of command and control and hierarchies. All of the social media was up ending it.
Leaders are still in tremendous turmoil about [such issues as] “How do I show up?” “How do I lead?” “How do I actually develop relationships with people?” We don’t think about leadership as a relationship. And it’s such a fundamental idea. We think about as a title and position and power. It’s all about relationships.
I look at everything through the lens of relationships — the technology, the strategies, the actual implementation, development of culture. It’s all through the lens of relationships. That’s what makes us humans. It’s what drives us. And yes, we’re terrible at it.
Bob: You’ve broken new ground, and others think as well, in that important arena. But when you decided to go into that area, I think it would have been easy for somebody to think, “Well, Clayton Christensen’s got this. He’s the disruptive innovation guy. And McKinsey is talking about so and so McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group and Bain. They’re all talking about disruptive leadership.” Did you pause and say [to yourself], “This looks like a crowded territory? I don’t know if I should go into it.” Did you have any of that?
Charlene: Yes, quite a bit. And I just felt like they were all missing something. Because everyone will say the way to do this is to have an outside operation, because the core business couldn’t change. And I [thought] that doesn’t make any sense. I’m now seeing these core businesses actually changing and trying to change.
The answer is technology was making it so that these communications and the power distances were being closed. You couldn’t do that in the past. Ten to 20 years ago, when they were talking about this world where you really had to set [disruptive new businesses] outside [the core business] because the core mothership just was never going to change.
But now there’s a way to deal with information scarcity and communication scarcity inside a company. The fundamental assumptions of how businesses worked have changed. I thought I had a unique perspective on saying, “How could you actually do this?” And I waited to write my latest book, “The Disruption Mindset,” until there were enough case studies not at technology companies to be able to write an entire book about this.
Bob: Right, at the Nestle’s of the world. So you came at it from the standpoint of focusing on disruption from within, as opposed to disruption from without. Like you said, the [prevailing sentiment] had been “We have to set up an outside business, because the core business will kill it. It’ll choke it.” You said, “No, maybe in some companies that’s necessary. But you have to think about how to disrupt the core from within the core,” which was radical thinking at that time.
Charlene: And frankly, it comes from my own business experience. What I did at Community Newspapers was disrupt from within. [One of my examples] was the Boston Globe and Boston.com, which had been a separate organization [at the time]. I was completely embedded into the newspaper. It was not a separate operation, so that we could leverage of all the assets, and leverage leadership.
[We had] to create a product that was going to compete against [the core]. And we knew why … It was the future of the company. When you are changing the actual DNA of a company, that’s hard, hard work. You don’t embark on it just on a whim. You have to do it because you fundamentally believe that the future is going to be better than where we are today. And you don’t do that as an outside entity; you have to do that from within. And that must be done from the top [of the organization].
How She Conducts Thought Leadership Research
Bob: How did you come up with all this great thinking that went into these best-selling books? How would you describe your content development process?
Charlene: My “Disruption Mindset” book was really different from [my] other books. I pretty much knew what [those other books] were going to be about. We had outlines. We looked for case studies. We knew what the thesis was for every other book.
[But with] this one, I had no idea what the answer was. We really had to go out there and research and talk to people and figure it out along the way. It was messy. And then I realized no one actually says, “You know, our disruption strategies focus on future customers.” But that is exactly what they were doing. I looked at all these case studies and [said], “What is it that they do?”
They’re incredibly customer focused. But they weren’t looking at just the current customer. They were always looking at the future customer. I put into words what they were doing, and they didn’t realize that this is what they did because that’s just the way they did it.
Bob: You put the label on it. You said, “Well, this is what you folks are doing. And I’m going to put this label on it.”
Charlene: Well, you look at superheroes, right? They don’t think they are anything unusual. They do this every day. I mean, you can see through walls, you can fly in the sky, right? It’s so easy.
For me. It’s like second nature. These disruptive organizations have a superpower of being able to constantly look to the future, and they don’t think about [it as] something unusual. And yet every other company [wants to know], “How do you do that?” How do you orient the entire company on looking to the future? How do you do that?” So I went through and figured it out. They actually do this.
Bob: Would it be fair to say you’re learning is largely from case examples of companies that are wading through these issues, some more successfully than others? And looking at the differences between the “best practice” examples and the rest?
Charlene: Yeah. I don’t know any other way to do it — data, case studies. If I just sit here at my desk, I’m never going to learn anything. I go out there and observe. I take a very anthropological approach to this, to go out and wander around, talk to them, literally visit their offices and spend days with them.
Oftentimes, it’s very synergistic with my client work, too. This is the interesting thing: I see my client work as helping them applying the knowledge, but also doing constant research. Like “How do you think about this?” Oh, wait, “Is this is a new problem that’s coming up? I never thought of it that way. What’s the challenge around that?”
My colleague, Jeremiah Owyang [a partner at Altimeter Group for four years] would say, “Always be researching. ABR — always be researching.” I feel like in every interaction — even this conversation here — I’m learning so much from it. These are the things I have to think about and remember. And I take notes on them.
Bob: In my experience, the way many companies do thought leadership research is to throw surveys out there get hundreds or thousands of responses. They call that quantitative data as real data, you know, percentages that [they] can say, best-practice [companies] do this, and worst-practice [companies] do that. A second research stream is the case study, research of the type you do. And the third stream is purely secondary research, where we try to understand from what the Wall Street Journal and Fortune and others have said about these companies, and trying to read the tea leaves that way. It seems you’re squarely or largely in that second camp of primary case study research, where you’re talking to people in companies.
Charlene: I do all three, actually. I usually do surveys once or twice a year. Again, case studies are always great. And I do the third.
I’ll give an example. Every January, I write a little short piece about priorities for the year. I don’t do predictions. The main reason is you put that something’s going to happen — what are you going to do with that? … I will never put out a [predictions] piece.
I’ve never had a live stream without saying what’s happening and this is what you do about it. The reason I put it out in January is I look at all the predictions that everyone else is putting up. I’m doing all this secondary research and looking at all the trends. There are so many smart people out there. I look at their predictions, catalogue them, see what the trends are, and then sit back and say, “ If I were reading all of this, what would my recommendation be?”
I distill all of that, use my conversations with leaders, who are my primary data source, and then look at all this great thought leadership that other people distill, and come up with an opinion based on some research to say, “This is what I think you should be focused on.” Yeah.
Bob: The case study, research, the interviews with companies — how important are they in your research mix?
Charlene: It is so important. Given my access, I can talk to a lot of them.
This is my process. I tell them, “Hey, I’m doing some research. What topics should we be researching? What are your biggest pain points?” And they’ll never tell this to a consultant. But they will tell it to me. … [They’ll say] “This is something on my mind. And this is a real challenge for me. Have you ever come across anybody else who does this?”
That’s such a privileged position to be in — to have these really confidential conversations with people. And they know I’m going to keep them confidential. They know I’m going to [publicly talk about] that larger topic, but I’ll never say this guy at that company said this.
Bob: The input is gold — pure gold.
Charlene’s Thought Leadership Marketing Mix
Bob: Let’s talk about the ways you bring your expertise to market. With the book “Groundswell,” you were the one of the first to explore, and in a deep and substantive way, the impact of social media, including social media marketing. But lots has changed since you [and co-author Josh Bernoff] wrote that book. I remember when there wasn’t Facebook. I remember about this thing called MySpace, and that people thought that was really going to be the next big thing. And who was it that bought it? Newscorp, I think bought. And then not much more happened with [MySpace]. How do you look at your own marketing mix? And have you been rethinking it?
Charlene: I started with blogs when we wrote “Groundswell” [in 2007]. Twitter and Facebook had just appeared, and we had barely any mentions of them in there. They appeared, thank goodness, but [we had] barely anything [on them]. And then we wrote an update two years later, and there was a lot more mentions of them. But it’s just fascinating how quickly it changes. And that was a 2008. That wasn’t very long ago.
We were talking about RSS feeds and community boards. And now we have live streaming. We have TikTok. We have Discord. We have Reddit, which is more of a public community. But Discord is fascinating?
How do you build this community? Do you stream on Twitch? No, none of my community is on Twitch [a livestreaming service for gaming, sports, music and other entertainment fans]. I would never stream on Twitch. I stream on LinkedIn, and I archive over to YouTube. I try to connect to Facebook when it’s available, and Twitter is there to stream into four different channels. And there are different reasons why.
There’s [my mix]. I keep mixing it up. I launched a podcast finally. And I’m starting to do a course. So [I’m] constantly mixing it up because [my] audience is growing and changing about where they get their ideas.
One of the things I did before I wrote “The Disruption Mindset” was to do a survey of people asking them how they find new thought leadership? Where do you go for your ideas? What the last idea you put into place? How did you learn about it?
It’s rarely through books. It’s usually through a podcast or a video. They watch on YouTube, read an article, read a blog, see a Tweet or Instagram story. So it’s very, very diverse.
And you have to choose. I think the biggest mistake is spreading yourself too thin. I don’t have much of a following on Instagram, even though so many other thought leaders do. My following is on LinkedIn. I’ve doubled down on LinkedIn and started a newsletter there. It’s doing extremely well and growing, but that’s the base.
You go to your strengths, rather than trying to lift up everything else. I post on Instagram just to keep that connection there. But I have hardly any followers there. And I’m not going to put a lot of investment into that because it’s not going to pay off, contrary to me growing my audience on LinkedIn.
Why She Favors LinkedIn
Bob: What is it about LinkedIn that makes it a really good social network for you?
Charlene: Well, it’s a matter of timing. I got on early and became a LinkedIn Influencer, and that drove my leadership, my audience, right from the very beginning. That initial boost is what gets it, and what you find on LinkedIn. The people who have huge followings built it very quickly early on. It’s really hard to grow past that level, unless you have another big event or boosts that happened somewhere along the way.
Same thing with Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, any of those things. If you get in early, you draw people because there’s no one else around and you can build a following very, very quickly because no one else is doing it.
When people are reticent to do that, they think of MySpace. “Well, what if Clubhouse is the next MySpace, and a better social network comes around and everybody abandons Clubhouse, right?” That’s the way some people think.
But you know, if it was good for the time being, if you could get a couple 100,000, or even a million people on Clubhouse listening to you, that’s better than never being on there. And as things shift, as your audience moves. You have to keep experimenting with all these things. It is a delicate balance.
But I hear from people who say they don’t want to be on LinkedIn because they don’t own that list. But why is ownership such an important thing? You can create more audiences, and people sharing your growing your audiences, even if you don’t “own” them.
Thought leaders need to replace their scarcity-based mindsets with abundance mindsets. You won’t get very far if you are constantly holding things and not [getting your] ideas are out there. I share my presentations all the time. And I see so many thought leaders say, “Well, I don’t want them to get those presentations.” If someone’s going to take your presentation and present it as you would, they’d be spreading your words. Why wouldn’t you want them to do it? I share my presentation with everybody. … I post. Not being tight with my content has helped so much.
Giving Away Content: The Altimeter Model
Bob: That was a key strategy in founding Altimeter Group, right? It was a different research and dissemination model than the Forrester or Gartner or IDC model of, “You pay us $50,000 or whatever as the entry fee for one of our research services and get everything.”
Charlene: We had to do it. It was a blue ocean strategy. We had 100,000 people reading our research compared to 5,000 paid subscribers. I mean, the numbers were 20x. When you do that, you instantaneously build up your brand. And we were talking about something that was very hard for people to follow in social technologies. So [our strategy was] brand new, the only game in town. We grew like gangbusters in 2009 and 2010, when everyone else was shrinking.
Bob: I imagine it helped generate consulting business, which, of course, was for a fee. But you wouldn’t have gotten in front of thousands of people with a gatekeeper entry fee model.
Charlene: We gave the research away for free. But because we took such a design thinking approach in writing to a very specific person, we had a very specific problem that we could help them solve. And they would literally call us out of the blue and say, “We need to get you’re in here right now.” Or “It feels like you were looking over my shoulder — you’re exactly looking at the things that we’re having a problem with.”
When you have 100,000 people reading that report, you only need a small number of them to call you. Our biggest scarcity with four people was analysts’ time. I could not have them spending any time on marketing and sales. They were literally just answering the call, scoping the issue, and going off and addressing it, which was constantly repeatable. We didn’t have to reinvent anything new. We had done all the research. We could do all the assessments and consulting on one very specific problem, versus having to do it and start from scratch every single time.
Bob: This was a much different model than the Forrester/Gartner/CEB research models out there.
Charlene: Yes. And on the issue of most of the research firms’ revenues coming from vendors who wanted to influence the analysts, no, 100%, you couldn’t buy Altimeter. There was nothing to buy.
Bob: I imagine the vendors knocked on the door heavily saying, “Hey, can we do a study?” But what they’re not saying is they want to influence your next report in which you say something about them.
Charlene: We did a lot of white papers, but it wasn’t the mainstay of our business. And we had 100% control over those topics. We always said, “We cannot say that you’re the best, the only — anything like that. It has to be on behalf of the customer that you’re writing for. We don’t talk about your offerings.” There was no way to buy us.
Future Topics for Charlene
Bob: What are your topic interests for the rest of the decade? Is there another one beyond disruptive leadership?
Charlene: I think disrupted leadership and digital transformation as being very technology oriented. I mentioned this focus on stakeholder capitalism and conscious capitalism. How do you create organizations that will be dynamic, capable of dealing with flux? Leading in a complex world, we’re now not just looking at the disruptions coming at you, but how you prepare an organization systematically to be constantly changing.
We as leaders are taught and businesses are taught to optimize things to create stability, establish norms, and standardize things so that they always run the same every time. Versus how do you orient an organization to be constantly changing, starting new things, and very importantly, closing new things. We don’t have a mechanism to say, “Hey, we’re going to be sunsetting this part of the business, and those people need to be taken care of.” We know this is going to happen at some point, so that we will need training. We don’t set up organizations this way, from the beginning to the end. So how do you create an organization from scratch to be constantly changing and evolving and reinventing itself?
Bob: In the books and articles I’ve read, that has even been difficult – even for the born-digital firms. Take Netflix. Even though it was DVDs through the mail after you order them on the website, and then shifted to streaming. That shift was not altogether smooth. And you think if anybody were to get this shift, right, it would be Reed Hastings and his crew at Netflix. But they struggled [at first] with the switch. Are you saying that companies are going to have to make those switches much more frequently?
Charlene: We saw with the pandemic that some organizations that struggled with change, and others that changed quickly. Looking back again, at some of the reasons were because they were wired for change, wired for flux. They had the processes and mindsets, the ability to take in all this new information, process it and triage it, decide what to do, go in that direction, and “Oh, wait, go back, that wasn’t the right direction.”
They were able to change their minds. These are capabilities that you develop and anticipate you’re going to have to use, versus “Everything always has to be the same.” It’s very fragile, then versus being anti-fragile, where you’re getting stronger with every single time.
How do you build agility into the business as opposed to be forced to deal with every two years and sell people all the time [on the need for change]? “Here’s why we need to abandon this business and get into this business” can be an uphill battle.
Bob: Are there certain industries in which this is much more important than in others?
Charlene: No. My favorite example is a sand company. I was talking to its CEO. This is a sand company – like beach sand. Yeah. He said, “Oh, my goodness, my industry is being so disrupted.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, you make sand. How is that possible?” He goes, “You’re right. I mean, we usually just sell through distributors, and they always buy our sand. But we’re realizing that sand is a component for glass that’s going into these devices, and that it’s changing so quickly.”
So now they have to go out and talk to 10,000 customers to understand what’s going on – and even the thousands of material scientists who are thinking about lie the new sands and glass that they need. So in that CEO’s industry, its business has completely changed. Because they need to be on top of the latest technology changes, to produce the right kind of sand.
I’m like, “Wow, that’s completely different.” Look at Cemex in Mexico. They make cement. They are wired for change. … They’re constantly looking for new things to have out there. A cement company!
The Need to Continually Engage with the Target Audience
Bob: Is this anything that you that I didn’t ask you on these topics that I should have?
Charlene: You did a great job. You’re such a great interviewer. I would say the one thing that thought leaders always forget is that you have to publish and constantly be out there. The thought that I can just write a book and then sit back is just a mistake “Oh, I could just put up as one big piece, and it’s going to be the one that just dominates everything, because I’m putting all of my effort into one thing.”
And that then you don’t have to do any engagement. I’m sorry, but you have to be top of mind. You have to be out there. If nothing else, test your ideas to see if they resonate or not. This idea that you can be “one and done” — just put it all out there in one fell swoop, and I’ll do it after I publish the book — no, you have to do it right now. Because it’s all about audience development, developing that relationship with them, and constantly encouraging that conversation to take place.
The people who a thought leader is trying to lead will only follow them if they’re there. When you show up. If you’re not there, they’re going to follow somebody else.
Bob: Does that apply when you use LinkedIn? A lot of people use it for one-directional communication. “Here’s my post, I’ll let people comment, but I won’t answer the comments.”
Charlene: It applies constantly. [The best thought leaders] are constantly in there replying to every comment, liking them, acknowledging them, thanking them asking, “What other questions do you have?”
I’ll be very honest and transparent. I don’t do all of it myself. I have a team. But they’re in constant communication with me. “Hey, this is a comment here, you need to go in and do that.” And I go in and read every comment — every single one.
Bob: Do some of these comments change your thinking on a topic where you say, “You know what, I have to cover this aspect of it on my next post, because I kind of missed it”?
Charlene: One person was writing about conscious capitalism and said, “I really want to talk about that.” And they were absolutely right: We should talk about that. All these things inspire me to go and talk about those things. And I thank them, like, “Thank you, Jay, for raising that. This episode is dedicated to you.”
In my live stream, I recently said, “You know, I need to hear more questions from you all, because I love answering them. So come and ask me questions. And I will shout out to you and answer them in the next live stream.”
Bob: It’s like having a 24×7 focus group.
Charlene: It’s fantastic. I love my live streams, because I always begin with a question. Like today, I was asked, “What was the biggest thing you learned from your digital transformation?” And people were sharing that and I literally put them up on screen when they share it. It is so helpful, because I’m hearing from them what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, getting questions like, “How do you do that?” “You’re saying this, and that?”
It’s really good. It makes you accountable to a higher level.
I love the quote that “You were born with two ears and one mouth and should use them in the same proportions.” If we’re to be effective thought leaders, we have to be constantly listening, filtering, learning, constantly learning, and then pulling it together into thoughts that hopefully people will listen to and that resonates with them.
Bob: This has been great having you. I really appreciate you being our inaugural guest on this new video and podcast. And I look forward to the next discussion whenever that happens.
Charlene: Thank you so much for your thought leadership on thought leadership. It’s been so incredibly helpful to read your work.