Interview with Charlene Li

Photo of Charlene LiTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I interview talented professionals who are also parents. This month’s interview is with Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group. She will now tell you more about herself and her views on leadership and parenting.

1) Welcome, Charlene! Please tell us about yourself.

I’m the founder of the Altimeter Group where I’m a consultant and independent thought leader on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media, and marketing. Formerly, I was vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and a consultant with Monitor Group. I was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company in 2010 and one of the most influential women in technology in 2009.

I’m the author of The New York Times bestseller Open Leadership. I’m also the coauthor of the critically acclaimed, bestselling book Groundswell, which was named one of the best business books in 2008.

I graduated from Harvard Business School and received a magna cum laude degree from Harvard College. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Alumni Association, as well as The Poynter Institute.

My husband and I met in business school, and we’ve been married for almost 18 years. I agree with Sheryl Sandberg that your most important career decision is your choice of a life partner. In fact, when I wrote “Open Leadership”, I thanked my husband before anyone else in the acknowledgements. I couldn’t have written it without his support.

We have two children, a son who’s in 8th grade and a daughter in 7th grade. Partly because my son is dyslexic, I left Forrester Research (after 10 years) to look for new opportunities that would allow me to spend more time with him. While it was emotionally challenging to leave, I firmly believe you should evaluate your career every 18 months. I took this advice to heart, realizing that the worst thing that could happen would be having to ask for my job back. Instead, I became an independent contractor and then decided to start my own consulting business.

2) Your latest book, Open Leadership, is about how leaders must let go to succeed. What inspired you to write it? 

After I wrote my first book, Groundswell, many CEOs told me that while they understood the importance of giving up control, they didn’t want to. I would then ask them if they thought they really were in control. This idea can be traced back to Peter Drucker, who talked about breaking down hierarchy and getting away from a command and control approach to leadership. I decided to write “Open Leadership” to expand this dialog.

My primary audience for “Open Leadership” was business leaders, but I had two other audiences in mind as well: churches and families. In congregations, leadership control and hierarchy are shared between ordained leaders and lay people. They are tied by passion and belief. In families, you are tied by genetics. Regardless, the role of leadership is the same in all of these environments. You lead through the relationships you form. You have to remember that the people around you have choices; they aren’t forced to follow you.

(Karen’s two cents: With teenagers, who start looking to their peers for advice more than their parents, this idea is especially true. No one can force your kids to respect you, to listen to you, or to follow you. You need to have a solid relationship with your kids to “lead” them through their teenage years.)

3) As a parent, have you practiced a form of open leadership? Have you had to “let go” so that your children can reach their full potential? 

Absolutely! All the time! One concept in my book is the “sandbox covenant,” which is about delegating responsibility by defining how big the “sandbox” is and how high its walls are. In essence, it’s about creating a safe environment for employees to practice taking on risk. This concept was very much informed by my personal experience as a parent and through my research in companies. It’s all about how to encourage people to take risks so that they can grow. After all, grit and resilience in both families and organizations is important.

When my kids were little, it was important to give them a lot of structure. As they grew, I changed the structure so that they could have more opportunities to learn. For example, when my daughter was four years old, she hated brushing her teeth. One day, I saw her looking at her toothpaste and then at the liquid soap dispenser next to the sink. I told her, “I don’t think you should do that.” But, she didn’t listen to me, started brushing her teeth with the soap, and immediately spit it out. I didn’t stop her because I wanted her to learn (and I knew she wouldn’t hurt herself). To this day, we still talk about the time she washed her mouth out with soap.

I’ve also evolved the sandbox to accommodate online activities and electronic gear. I closely monitor my kids’ online games, and one time I was concerned that another player was going to try to scam gold coins from my daughter. I warned her about it, but let her decide what to do. Well, she ignored me and ended up losing all of her hard-earned gold. Since then, I’ve seen her be more careful and aware of the people she connects with online. Even so, we have a rule that she can only accept online friend requests from people that she already knows.

My favorite chapter in “Open Leadership” is about dealing with risk and failure (Chapter 9). At work, we need to encourage people to take appropriate risks. At home, the same is true. When my son was in 7th grade, he got Cs on his report card. This was a wake up call for him, and since then he has been an A student. I’m thankful this happened to him in 7th grade, when it wouldn’t have much of an impact on high school and his college choices.

We believe in giving our kids opportunities to try a lot of things, but there are always limits. For example, they each get one hour of computer time per day, and I monitor all their incoming email and their social media accounts. While my kids may not always agree with the rules, they comply. And they talk about how they appreciate the opportunities we give them.

4) What advice would you give about developing skills as both leaders and parents? Is there a person, a book, or a course that has particularly influenced you?

The ability to listen and communicate as a leader is so critical, especially in how you scale and do it all the time. Leaders think their primary job is to talk, but they need to get input from so many places (employees, customers). With kids, we often think our job is to tell them what to do. Really it is to understand where they are and to guide them. To understand my kids’ world, I play all their games, I use their apps, and we talk about new apps we’ve heard about. It’s a way to build relationship. It takes time, but it’s so worth it.

One tool that has influenced me is the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) Feedback Model. I apply it at work and at home, especially for resolving conflict. One of its mantras is, “If you have a problem, you need to tell me about it.”  Recently, my daughter and I had a misunderstanding about her phone usage, and she lost her computer privilege because of it. She went off and thought about what she had done, and she came back with a written proposal for resolving the situation. She showed me that she understood my concerns, that she was committed to not repeating the situation, and what should happen if she did it again. This is an example of clearly communicating what we agreed to and who’s going to do what, which together build trust. And I firmly believe that both families and businesses are built on relationships and trust.

Thank you, Charlene, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I enjoyed hearing how you practice open leadership at home by providing a safe environment for your kids to take appropriate risks so that they can learn and grow. Your approach to parenting is filled with respect and strong communication, and your children must be learning valuable leadership skills that will serve them well in their academic and professional careers. How wonderful!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Interview with Charlene Li

  1. Karen,
    Really enjoying your posts and particularly interested in the idea of listening as a critical element of leadership and parenting. When our kids feel heard and feel like we ‘get’ them (even if it’s only a little bit!) great things happen. I found the same to be true as a manager. When you listen to your group, people feel valued and motivated. So, really, I think that the managers and parents who listen are the great ones! 🙂

    1. It’s nice to hear from you, Susan. Yes, relationships are so important for leadership, whether as a parent or in a for-profit or non-profit professional setting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s