Charlene Li, an expert on digital transformation, says COVID-19 has provided one very important lesson: things will truly change only if we become disruptive leaders.

Article by Pablo Hernández Lodigiani

In our modern, digitally connected world, innovation and speed are at the edge of all our organizations, whether it be work, home, or even our families. 

Charlene Li, who has dedicated herself to accompanying people to see the future from different perspectives with a view to finding better opportunities, speaks from her more than 20 years of experience in tech and business. According to Li, it’s less about control and more about empowerment: enabling employees to acquire the information they need, so they can make their own decisions.

“Our lives have been disrupted and won’t return to normal for a long time. During turbulent times, needs don’t go away—they shift. And if you miss these shifts, competitors and new entrants will gain a competitive advantage over you,” says Li, who will be hosting WOBI on Business Transformation, a 3-day digital event taking place on July 28-30. “Disruption creates opportunities but only for those who look up and bravely seek them out rather than hunkering down and waiting for the chaos to pass.”

In an interview with CEO Magazine North America, Li shared her vision regarding organizational plans in an environment of uncertainty.

“The first step is acknowledging that uncertainty is a certainty and using one of the most powerful tools to understand the situation–scenario planning,” she said. “It is a process that creates multiple iterations of the future and develops robust strategies for each one. Identify and execute on the ‘no-regrets’ moves. Then set up triggers that notify you that one scenario is unfolding versus the others. Trust is in short supply and organizations/brands will have to work extra hard to establish and maintain their credibility.”

Leading in the digital age is quite a challenge, even more so if a pandemic has the world crippled with an economic crisis, which is why corporate leadership must change the way it leads. Consumers will be much more concerned about cleanliness and hygiene which means integrating even more communication into the customer experience about what you are doing to address those types of needs. 

This can range from having someone designated on-site as the safety manager with a highly visible vest or hat, to offering transparency into how you make your products or services.

“The virus has provided one very important lesson–we are more resilient leaders and organizations than we ever thought possible,” says Li. “Disruptive leaders frame their leadership in the context of meaningful decisions in times of certainty. So if there’s a time to take a step forward, now is looking great. Maintaining a strong relationship with followers will result truly important. The Greek philosopher Epitetus said: ‘You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in the same proportion.’”

When asked about what changes and opportunities she sees for company leaders, Li firstly spoke of the openness to change mindset, which sets the direction for the disruption. Secondly, about the ability of empowering and inspiring people, because developing a network, a followership, creates a cause in people and a movement that will carry everyone through the inevitable tough times ahead. 

“The size and quality of your network, not your title, determines how much power and influence you have,” Li said. “The leading market skill needed to overcome this crisis is being able to look beyond the challenges of today and invest in an uncertain future. It’s hard enough during normal times to focus on that, but now, it feels nearly impossible when we can barely predict what will happen next week. But that’s where the competitive edge is hidden. Especially now, when we must connect with colleagues even more via digital channels, it’s all-important for leaders to be confident extending their leadership into digital and social channels.”

“The world needs us to be confident in our ability to bring exponential change to our organizations, communities, and society,” Li concluded. “There are so many challenges that need to be addressed and things will change only if we show up as disruptive leaders. 

“We often focus too much on the ‘digital’ and not nearly enough on the ‘transformation.’ This is why so many digital transformation efforts fail. It makes no difference how advanced the technology is if people won’t adopt it and use it to change the way that business is done.”