Charlene Li Part 4 – Risk and failure

This post is part of our Summer of Buzz series.  Register today – seats are going fast! We’d hate for you to miss out!

Ben Whitford’s interview with Charlene Li continues. (Here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3.) In this installment, Charlene talks about the traits of open leadership. Who is an open leader? Does openness need to be a directive from the C-suite, or can it bubble up from the bottom? Here’s what Charlene had to say.

Ben: What risks are involved in open leadership? How useful are written policies in this process? Is it possible/useful to have a top-down “this is how we do social media” document, or should best practices emerge organically?

Charlene: The biggest risk is that people in the organization are being too open or not open enough. For that reason, written policies are essential because they spell out the rules of engagement for everyone and set expectations. But the two ways to come up with these policies–either dictated from above or crowdsourced from below–are not mutually exclusive of each other. Policies created by committee tend to result in bloated documents that are rarely used, while policies created by a single entity or group find few supporters. Instead, I encourage leaders to set a foundation of open principles based on strategic reasons. From there, the broad organization can provide input on how those principles are expressed in best practices and guidelines. Being open is an ever-changing dynamic that pulses with the life of the organization. As such, the policies that express how that organization engages in relationships also needs to change.

Ben: Can you explain why a tolerance for failure is so important to good open leadership? What are the key benefits of “open failure”, and how can leaders learn to make the most of mistakes in this way? Is there anything they can do in advance of actual failure to make it easier to fail productively? Can you give a good example of open failure?

Charlene: Open leaders recognize that they are in a relationship with their followers–and that meaningful relationships are never perfect. Things go wrong, failure happens, and the strength of that relationship is seen not in the good times, but in how it weathers the bad times. Forgiving failure develops trust, which is essential in strong relationships.

One thing leaders can do to make it easier to fail is to anticipate what failures are likely to happen, and to put in place appropriate contingency plans. This isn’t about making sure that failure never happens, but rather, making sure that the organization is resilient enough to deal with and withstand the consequences of failure. Having confidence in the organization’s ability to recover allows the organization to take on the risks of being open.

One example of this is Barry Judge, the CMO of Best Buy. He had recently begun blogging when a premium loyalty offering went out to 6.8 million customers instead of the intended 1,000 recipients. Barry immediately apologized on this blog for violating customer trust and also asked for feedback on additional steps Best Buy could take to rebuild trust. The result: Best Buy stayed ahead of this becoming a major crisis by quickly acknowledging and addressing the problem.

The final part of this interview will be out on Monday. The final two questions are about how leaders can cope with open leadership when, let’s face it, it can be pretty uncomfortable at first. June 16 is sneaking up on us–just 8 business days away–so please take a minute and register or pass along the information to a colleague who can attend in your stead.

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