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Disruption and what HR Can do about it: Charlene Li, Author, Speaker, & Board Member, Altimeter

strategic Jul 21, 2019

Summary by Emma Lokar

Disruption and What HR Can do About it: Charlene Li, Author, Speaker, & Board Member, Altimeter

Join me to hear from Charlene Li and author and expert in Digital Transformation to learn about disruption and what HR can do about it. Charlene is often asked “How do you actually thrive with disruption?”.  There are three elements of successful disruption: strategy, leadership, and culture. Strategy are those things that you can do and the things you won’t do. In business you cannot accomplish everything. Li explains that companies need to learn to set aside the things that are urgent and focus on the important things for the future. Leaders need to focus less on “putting out fires” and focus more on training their teams on how to do it on their own.

Through all of these elements Charlene shares that “the technology is there to help you accomplish whatever it is you want to do. To handle disruption, it is essential for HR to be a part of those strategy conversations, be leaders, and derive a culture that can take disruption head on. See above for the full video blog. (If you prefer to read the interview, see the transcript below.)

All My Best,

Cindy Lu

Founder, HR Mastermind Peer Advisory Boards

P.S. Register today for the BigHR event on Friday 9/13/19 at Cisco in Richardson TX before summer special pricing ends: 


 Transcript by


Cindy Lu:                      Hi there. This is Cindy [Lu 00:00:02], and I'm joined today by Charlene Li, and I'm going to give a little bit longer introduction because we're so excited to have her here with us today. So, Charlene is the author of five books including the New York Times bestseller Open Leadership, and the co-author of Groundswell. She's also an entrepreneur, founder, senior fellow of Altimeter, right? A disruptive analyst firm that was acquired by Prophet.  She also has appeared on 60 Minutes, PBS, ABC, CNN, CNBC, and frequently quoted by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, the Associated Press. And she's quite a sought-after speaker, and has appeared at events like Ted, South by Southwest, World Economic Forum, and Business Economic Forum. So, we're really excited that you decided to join us here at CHRO Partners.  She is an expert in digital transformation, but Charlene isn't here today to talk about digital transformation. She's here today to talk about disruption, and what HR can do about it. And so, she's going to give us a quick preview of what she's going to come and speak to us about at the big HR event this fall, September 13th at Cisco in Richardson, Texas. So, she's just going to give us a little highlight. The book isn't even out yet, so we are excited to learn more today. But I'm curious, Charlene, why did you choose Digital Disruption, or disruption as your latest book?

Charlene Li:                  Yeah, as a long-time analyst, been an analyst for now 20 years. I started at [Forester 00:01:38] in 1999, and I've been watching this whole world change. I even started it in 1993 in newspapers, coming out of business school, out of Harvard Business School. And I wanted to be in a place where technology was really having an impact. For example, newspapers. I could see that something was going to change even though frankly the world wide web didn't exist when I graduated. So, I've made a career basically out of chasing these new disruptions that are going to come in and change the way that we work, the way that we live. And I have always pegged myself as somebody who helped leaders and organizations thrive with disruption.  And then somebody called me on it about three, four years ago, "So that's what you do. How do you actually thrive with disruption?" And I went, "You know, I don't really have a really good answer to that." So, I started researching because we have all these examples of companies who didn't thrive, a Blockbuster, Radio Shack, Kodak, but where are the positive examples? And so, I wanted to write a book and find examples of companies who were making that pivot, were disrupting themselves. And how did they go through this, because it's really, really hard. What are the elements of successful disruption?

Cindy Lu:                      Yeah, so it's so interesting that word's been around for quite a long time, but all of a sudden I feel this urgency in the marketplace, of people suddenly going to something we really need to pay attention to, or we're going to get Uberized, or Netflix, you know? And so, I'm curious, it seems kind of complex and I know you're known for sort of simplifying and making the complex simple for executives and business. Maybe just really quick, when you think about a disruption mindset, why is it so important? Other than the obvious, like you might not be here tomorrow.

Charlene Li:                  Well that's the obvious part. But the question becomes like, "So what do you do about it?" And what I found, there are three things around strategy, leadership and culture, [inaudible 00:03:41] have to think about things differently. But let's just talk about strategy, which is what you will do, what you won't do, because you can do anything, but you can't do everything. And the reason why it gets kind of tumbled up in people's heads is because, "Well, I kind of know what I need to do, but it seems so hard and onerous. I don't want to go there." So, what I found with these companies that are able to be disruptive, they have a really simple idea, really simple strategy, consistent across every single one of them. And that is to focus on the future customer. And the reason why that's so simple is if you have a really clear idea of who you're going to serve in the future, where you're headed to, then you know what kind of experience you want to create and you know what to invest in today. If you don't have that, then giving up the things that you have to do today. Setting aside the things that are urgent and then focusing on these important things for the future is really difficult to do. Because what's the ROI of investing in the future? That ROI you can't see today, it's an investment for the future. It's hard to justify. It's unknown. So, the companies who do really well at disruption spent an inordinate amount of their time, their focus, aligning the entire organization around that future vision. And then they have the leadership and the culture to go be able to execute on that strategy.

Cindy Lu:                      Yeah, that's really interesting. But sometimes I think it's hard to separate the technology piece. Because if you don't understand what's possible and all the amazing technology that's available. So, I'll give you an example. I didn't know until last week on Zoom that I could do breakout groups, right? And so, I'm like, "This is amazing. This just changed my whole business model. I can do breakout groups." I mean, it's such a simple thing. Right? And so, if you're an executive that's not keeping up with what's going on in the world, what's your advice for how to do that?

Charlene Li:                  Well, I think of it this way. If you knew that the technology was available, would you go looking for the opportunity? Or do you look for the opportunity and then look for the technology that can actually solve that? This has never, ever been a technology problem. The technology is there to help you accomplish whatever it is that you want to do. Some of it may be more advanced, some of it may be too early, but that technology exists. The biggest problem I have on people isn't that the technology isn't available. It's knowing what they want to do. And it's one thing to say, "I'm going to try to focus on my current customers, and that's all I'm going to do. I'm going to focus 95% of my energy there and I'm going to spend maybe 5% of my time thinking about the future." If you do that and you're at senior executive, your toast. Because who else is going to be thinking about the future?

Cindy Lu:                      Right, right, exactly. So, it's almost like we're over complicating it.

Charlene Li:                  This is why I keep saying it's a really simple thing to do, but very hard thing to do. Because it means putting aside all the things that are calling for your attention, actually becoming a really good leader in terms of letting people figure out the problems themselves, solve it themselves, instead of having put yourself in the middle of it all the time. I hear from the leaders who frankly give you the excuse, "Well, there's so many important fires I have to put out." I go, "Well, what's your team there for? Train them, get them to do it." And inevitably the... The answer comes back, "Well I don't trust them to do it the right way." Then I go, "Well you have some bigger issues other than disruption in your organization." So, you need to tackle those things at sort of at the same time as you're trying to figure out how do I figure out what to do?

Cindy Lu:                      Well, speaking of people, that's actually how I found you is through LinkedIn Learning, and your amazing talk about digital disruption I think for HR, right? Is that...? The exact title, but I was like, "Look at that. This is exactly what I've been looking for," as I was researching a for our big HR event coming up. And so obviously the customer in this case for HR would be your employees and your team members, and so what have you seen progressive HR folks doing in studying who the future employee looks like?

Charlene Li:                  Yeah. And I think, again, this is a different tact to be thinking about this. And that is when it comes to digital transformation, we think it's a technology issue and its never technology as I mentioned before. It's actually people issue. And so far, our research shows that HR is almost completely absent from the discussions away from the strategy table talking about digital transformation because again, people think it's a technology problem. It's never, and I have so much research and data that says, "You put the technology there, but unless you change the way people approach it... " And also understand how relationships are going to change because of that, technology. Let's just put in a collaboration platform inside a company. When you put that in, it sounds like a rational thing to do, allow people to collaborate digitally, but now you're challenging the power structures that live inside an organization, the hierarchies. So, what happens when people can talk to their boss's, boss's, boss directly and those bosses, replied back to the front lines. They just went through and blew apart five levels of hierarchy in an organization. So those five people in that chain of command are thinking, "Well, what's my job now? What's my role?" And they refuse to use it. That's a people problem. That's not a technology problem.

Cindy Lu:                      Right. Yeah, it certainly seems like HR should be front and center.

Charlene Li:                  Yes.

Cindy Lu:                      And I think that it has been a big discussion topic with some of our CHR round tables here in town and we're really anxious to hear more and get some practical tips that we can take away. So, you have a new book coming out, Disruption Mindset in August. And just going to say that the people who attend the event might or might not have an opportunity to get Charlene to sign these books and we may have some giveaways for our audience. So, I'm curious, how would they get a copy of this book if they wanted to order an extra one or have a digital copy?

Charlene Li:                  Sure, they can go onto Amazon or their favorite retailers and pre-order it now. It comes out on August 20th and we have the option also to order it from my site and I'll sign it, personalize it for people too as well. Not quite up yet, but that'll be available to you as well.

Cindy Lu:                      Okay, well good. So, what can we expect on the 13th?

Charlene Li:                  well, I think more than anything else, I really want to customize what I'm talking about in the book, the Disruption Mindset for HR. What does it mean for you to step up and be disruptive? What does it look like? How do you actually insert yourself into these conversations? And in particular when it comes to focusing on the future customer, one of the biggest things I hear from people is, "We have to hire the right people. We have to make sure we have training and develop these disruptive leaders." So how do you identify who is going to be disruptive in a good way, not in a bad way. And then hire them, train them, and then also develop them. Because you find these people across the organization, but they may not have the right leadership skills or they may have great leadership skills, but not the openness mindset.  So how do you piece things together and start pulling a profile together of how we are going to be disruptive as an organization? And what I mean by that is how are we going to focus on that future customer? So, we began this conversation saying that our customers as HR, are they employees? But ultimately, they're our customers. And that's a different mindset for even HR to think about. So, if you're thinking about just the internal aspects of who you're serving and not the ultimate customer, then you can't hire the right people. So, I keep saying that if you're not working on the experience, in particular for customer experience, then you're not working on the right thing. And that applies for all the internal functions as well. IT, HR, finance, you've got to be thinking, how's everything that we're doing going to create that great customer experience in the end?

Cindy Lu:                      Right. So really thinking well beyond the employee, but who are they touching every day, and how does that create that different experience? [crosstalk 00:12:15]-

Charlene Li:                  One of my favorite examples of this is Adobe. When they were going through their digital transformation, one of the things they realized was that going from product to software as a software in a cloud, they really needed to change their customer service function. So, it used to be a separate function. It was kind of a new marketing [inaudible 00:12:33] someplace else. They took it all under HR. I mean, when does HR become responsible for customer service? What they realized was that HR, hiring the right people and training them, and then having that impact directly onto the customer was something that really made a lot of sense. They have since now matured past that point, and now moved service back out into the product teams. But in the beginning, they needed to train everybody, get everybody on a completely different page.

 Cindy Lu:                      Yeah. You know, that's interesting, I'm seeing that trend a little bit. So, we actually, one of our members is Chief HR Officer for Encore here in town, but she also holds the title Chief Customer Officer.

Charlene Li:                  Right.

Cindy Lu:                      So, I'm seeing that pattern. It makes a lot of sense to me. So...

Charlene Li:                  Yeah, and then the other switch around is I see sometimes marketing taking over employee communications. Because they understand how to communicate, move hearts and minds of customers. They take that same expertise and apply to employees. And really start thinking about a different type of experience for them. So, they partner with HR, but take over that communication side of things. Or you see marketing people being transplanted into the HR department, where they can work really closely with HR professionals to make sure that message, but they are experts in communications and can make sure that message comes across very strongly internally.

Cindy Lu:                      I remember you mentioning that in the LinkedIn course and thinking that was my favorite piece of advice. I'm like, "That's great." Mix it up, right? Like it should be diversity of thought and different kinds of backgrounds. And having sort of done the solopreneur thing the last couple of years, I see the value in what we could have... With marketing that we could have used internally.

Charlene Li:                  [inaudible 00:00:14:16].

Cindy Lu:                      Well, wonderful. Well, Charlene, this has been wonderful to visit with you for a little bit today, and we are very excited to see you on the 13th. I believe you're also going to join us for the V.I.P CHRO, breakfast in the morning, and we're going do a little mini hackathon in the afternoon to figure out how we can disrupt HR.

Charlene Li:                  Awesome.

Cindy Lu:                      So hopefully we'll [inaudible 00:14:37] there as well. All right?

Charlene Li:                  Great.

Cindy Lu:                      Okay. Thanks so much.

Charlene Li:                  You're very welcome. Thank you.


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